I’m 5’6”, I weigh 225 pounds, and I’m not particularly good looking. Nobody in Manhattan wants to look like me. People in Manhattan want long, lean dancer’s muscles…they want to tone up…they want to have a swimmer’s body…and they don’t want to look like an Irish brick shit house. I’ve been watching the game of personal training in NYC for three years now, and it’s very clear to me that the best way to make a lot of money in this business is to possess a combination of being very good looking and being a very cool person. The people in NYC who can afford and seek out personal trainers want a combination of the cool friend they couldn’t hang out with in high school and a servant. I’ve tremendously improved my ability to be the, “cool friend”, since I started in this racket and I have a slightly better haircut now, but overall I do not possess the most desirable traits for this job. Since I do not have some critical elements that drive tremendous success in the world of personal training, I need to focus on other elements that I can control. I need to do good work, and I need to make sure I’m highly punctual and incredibly reliable. In fact, I need to make sure my work is so good that it overrides my shortcomings (pun intended). Ethan Grossman is an amazingly smart person who doesn’t use social media or put out articles, but I’m privy to his brain on a regular basis because we work together, and often times the conversations we have lead to ideas I share with the world. We’ve talked about pretty much every training related concept over the years, from PRI, to hypertrophy, to Olympic lifts, to program design, to nutrition, recovery, etc etc etc. The last conversation I was having with Ethan revolved around the most fool proof possible program to use with new clients to make sure they stick with you. As we talked, I felt like we were unearthing some pretty important ideas that could be really helpful to a lot of people. So here’s a 45 week program that emerged from the discussion that you could roll out with a new client to make sure they are your client for life.
When I first started doing personal training in NYC, I screwed up real hard with clients. I tried to coach every detail of every exercise they were doing on day one. This tactic alienated these clients, and to my naïve surprise, they were completely uninterested in continuing to work with me thereafter. I learned to shut my mouth more and more, give people exercises that required little to no coaching, let them talk, let them sweat, and generally speaking not violate their assumptions about what a gym experience should be for them. At a certain point, I just started doing the 30/30 workout from MASS with everyone on their first time in the gym. This tactic seemed to be working, as people felt they got an incredible workout…in fact pretty much everyone who did it felt like it was the hardest, most effective workout they had ever done in their entire life. I started having more people sticking with me as a result of using this 30/30 for everyone on day 1 approach. Then I started having less success with this method, as a string of new people were one and done. I had to really think on this, and it finally dawned on me that some people have done hard workouts before and are pretty rugged, and other people are super soft, have never really had their ass handed to them by a workout, and were overwhelmed by how far their physiology deviated from homeostasis on day one that they tapped out and never wanted to come back for more. I think the common denominator was experience…those who have gone to some dark places physiologically before loved going there in workout one with me, and those who had never gone into the deep end felt like they were drowning.
So one thing you should know about me…I hate when I don’t get reproducible results over and over and over. I can’t live with rates of success that are below 90%+. This question remained, is there a universal program that can be rolled out that will all but guarantee client retention with new people? Then the conversation with Ethan happened, and I feel like the idea for the solution to this problem emerged.
People who are looking to start with a personal trainer are generally looking for what they consider to be a good workout. The question is, what do regular people think a good workout is? The answer to this is that they want to feel like they worked hard. For regular people, loading up a bar pretty heavy and doing repeat sets of five is probably not going to recreate their perception of working really hard. Their perception of working hard is probably centered on cardiorespiratory experiences. Sometimes if you’re an educated trainer and you’ve learned things about biomechanics and physiology you can get in your own way. You can fall victim to thinking that everything a general population client does needs to look perfect mechanically, and that you need to give them a training session that addresses very specific fitness qualities like rate of force development, recruitment of high threshold motor units with heavy loading, and unilateral exercises for improving stabilization capabilities. You might have a perfect program on paper that gets you an A in your undergrad class, but it didn’t connect with your client’s gym assumptions, and now they want to start working with the guy who just got out of prison who has great looking arms.
So start with workouts that are low learning curve and are dominated by cardiorespiratory challenge. Try to create something that moves them station to station, and keeps their heart rate elevated for over a half an hour, and preferably 45 minutes to an hour. The new person aerobic circuit that I’ve developed that requires almost zero coaching goes as follows. 1. One mile on the Assault bike. 2. 20 reps of kettlebell deadlift. 3. 20 reps of push-ups. 4. 20 reps of goblet squat. 5. 0.25 miles on the True Form self-propelled curve treadmill. Perform this for rounds and see what you get for time. I’ll often start people who look deconditioned at 2 rounds, I’ll initially try to improve their time over the first couple of weeks, and then try to add more rounds after that. I tell people that the goal is to get them up to 4 rounds on this protocol and finish in under 50 minutes. I’ve done other variations of this as well at other gyms that have slightly different equipment. I’ve swapped in the Jacob’s Ladder for the Assault Bike, having people climb a certain number of feet (often 300). I’ve swapped in a standard treadmill for the self-propelled curve treadmill. I’ve done kettlebell swings instead of deadlifts, bench press instead of push-ups, etc etc. There’s lots of ways to skin this cat. The general rule of thumb is that on round 1, it should take about 3 minutes to finish each rhythmic aerobic station, and about 10 to 12 minutes overall for the round.
This is not an easy workout. Trust me…give it a shot if you think it is…you’ll be drenched. This takes most people about 45 minutes to an hour to finish 4 rounds. I let people take water breaks as they need to. I let them talk to me while they’re doing it. I try to play off of them and joke around with them. I just try to make the experience fun for them while they’re doing this. While people are doing this workout, they’re going to experience a stereotypical neurochemical response, which will involve adrenaline and endorphins. People like the way that chemical environment feels. As a personal trainer, whether you like it or not, you’re selling people on a sensory experience, and when you can increase the concentration of opiates in someone’s brain in combination with the stimulation of adrenaline, they’re going to like that. Everybody that does this workout is sore the next day. They’re usually sore in really good places, like abs, butt, and legs…and they’re usually not sore in the wrong places, like backs, knees, and shoulders. My strong advice is if you are a trainer, do not listen to people who tell you that making new clients sore is a bad idea. When you make people sore, you just created a walking business card for yourself. They’re going to tell everyone they know about how they’re sore from this great workout they just did. That soreness will remind them of you every time they feel it for the next few days. Also, whether you like it or not, general population clients associate soreness with a good workout.
Feel free to run with this cardio and calisthenics approach for a while with new people. I will typically roll with this plan for about 4 weeks, sometimes 6 to 8 weeks. If people are getting results and enjoying the process, don’t be so quick to jump ship. At some point though, this person is going to plateau, and things are going to get stale. This is when this person needs to be transitioned. Usually the kind of plateau people will hit will involve a situation where body composition changes are no longer taking place, and generally speaking the body composition changes people are looking for involve less fat and more muscle. The primary tool that will help people in this next transition is quality resistance training. By this point in time, this client should already trust you, and be willing to do whatever you say. This is where you can start with a very basic training template. While I was working as the Director of Education and Training for Peak Performance, I designed the template that Ethan and I use at this juncture, and it’s the same template that I include in the, Rethinking the Big Patterns, seminar that I teach. The program is actually very similar to the basic template that Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning has been using for years, but with some modifications so that it fits into an hour long timespan and is more applicable for personal training. I’ll include the whole written out program in this article, but there may be some terminology that you don’t fully understand (that’s why I teach an 18 hour, two day seminar on this system). The basics of the resistance training component of this program involve organizing the big, basic resistance training patterns (hinge, squat, press, pull, core) into an appropriate sequence and using moderate volume and intensity with people. Generally speaking, we pair a lower body lift with an upper body lift, and have a biomechanical teaching exercise placed in the recovery period. The sets and reps scheme involve something like three sets of ten. Without going into the entirety of this design, I would say it’s pretty standard operating procedure, very basic resistance training stuff we’re rolling out for people to do. I don’t want to pull out my bazooka at the beginning of the fight. As I first heard from Bill Hartman, who pulled the quote from, Jim Collins’ book, Great by Choice, “Fire bullets…then cannon balls”. The only other caveat to think about is that my goal here is to begin loading the client with resistance that will challenge them. When challenging resistance training is introduced, I believe that people need to learn biomechanical proficiency, so I begin teaching people their body and proper mechanics for major compound lifts at this juncture. Explaining these biomechanics concepts is well beyond the scope of this article. Here’s the exact template that we use in this second phase of working with clients…
- Phase 1, 3 weeks (all phases are approximately 3 weeks): Sagittal Focus
- Day 1
- 1. Med Balls & Plyo’s
- A1. Tall kneel chest throw 3 x 8
- A2. Box Jump 3 x 8
- B1. Half Kneel overhead throw 3 x 8
- B2. Split Squat Jump 3 x 4 each side
- 2. Main Lift
- A1. Knee Dominant 3 x 10
- A2. Vertical Pull 3 x 10
- A3. Pelvic Sagittal SCC: 3 x Motor Control Limit
- Specific to Thorax Classification
- B1. Asymmetrical front/back staggered single leg 3 x 10
- B2. Vertical push (usually incline press) 3 x 10
- B3. Rib Cage Focused SCC 3 x Motor Control Limit
- Specific to Thorax Classification
- 3. Conditioning (Choose a sagittal modality…here are 2 options)
- Jacob’s Ladder…how long can you last? (duration focused…trying to progress that variable)
- Assault Bike…how long can you last at a specific Wattage (duration focused…trying to progress that variable)
Phase 1, Day 2
- 1. Med Balls and Plyo’s
- 2. Main Lift
- A1. Hip dominant 3 x 10
- A2. Horizontal push 3 x 10
- A3. Pelvis SCC 3 x Motor Control Limit
- B1. Asymmetrical Front/Back Single Leg…sled push or carry, 3 x distance
- B2. Asymmetrical Front/Back Horizontal pull 3 x 10
- B3. Rib Cage SCC 3 x Motor Control Limit
- 3. Conditioning…same
Phase 2 (Introducing the Frontal Plane), Day 1
- 1. Med Balls and Plyo’s
- A1. Tall Kneeling Rotational Throw 2 x 8
- A2. Short Hurdle Jump to Box Jump 2 x 8
- B1. Lateral Kneeling Chest Throw 2 x 8
- B2. Split Squat Jump w/Bounce 2 x 4 each leg forward
- 2. Main Lift
- A1. Knee Dominant 3 x 8
- A2. Vertical Pull 3 x 8
- A3. Pelvic Frontal Sidelying SCC (Adductor)
- B1. Asymmetrical front back staggered with stance leg draw back, 3 x 8
- B2. Vertical push 3 x 8
- B3. Rib cage frontal plane sidelying SCC (Abs)
- 3. Conditioning
- A1. Power focused sagittal drill…max feet in 90 sec on Jacob’s Ladder, e.g.
- A2. How long can you last on the Versaclimber (increase duration over weeks)
Phase 2, Day 2
- 1. Med Balls & Plyo’s…same as day 1, except overhead instead of chest on linear throw
- 2. Main lift
- A1. Hip dominant 3 x 8
- A2. Horizontal push 3 x 8
- A3. Pelvis Frontal Plane Sidelying SCC 3 x Motor Control Drop off
- B1. Lateral sled drag 3 x distance
- B2. Horizontal pull 3 x 8
- B3. Rib Cage Frontal Plane Sidelying SCC 3 x Motor Control Drop off
- 3. Conditioning…same as day 1
Phase 3, Day 1 (Introducing the transverse plane)
- 1. Med Balls & Plyo’s
- A1. Standing Rotational Throw 2 x 8
- A2. Short Depth Box Jump 2 x 8
- B1. Lateral Squat Rotational Throw 2 x 8
- B2. Heiden’s 2 x 8 each leg
- 2. Main Lift
- A1. Knee Dominant 3 x 6
- A2. Vertical Pull 3 x 6
- A3. Pelvis Sagittal SCC 3 x Motor Control (Reciprocal 90/90 Sidelying)
- B1. Asymmetrical Front Back w/drawback & trunk rotation 3 x 6
- B2. Vertical Push 3 x 6
- B3. Rib Cage Asymmetrical Front/Back Transverse SCC 3 x Motor Control (Sidelying)
- 3. Conditioning
- Versa Climber Power
- Slideboard for Duration
Phase 3, Day 2
- 1. Med Balls & Plyos
- A1. Rotational Split Squat Throws 2 x 8
- A2. Consecutive Split Squat Jumps 2 x 8
- B1. Lateral Squat Rotational Throws 2 x 8
- B2. Heiden’s 2 x 8 each leg
- 2. Main Lift
- A1. Hip dominant 3 x 6
- A2. Horizontal push 3 x 6
- A3. Pelvis Frontal Sidelying SCC 3 x Motor Control Limit
- B1. Loaded Carry 3 x distance
- B2. Horizontal pull 3 x 6
- B3. Rib Cage transverse Standing Supported SCC x Motor Control Limit
- 3. Conditioning…same
After people have trained with this kind of style for a while, stagnation will again occur. In all honesty, what I see being the biggest limiter for most people, is that they don’t psychologically know how to push. This is when we introduce MASS 1 to people. They’ve learned biomechanics to a reasonable level at this point, and they know how to lift weights to a point where they’re proficient. In a great video that my friend, Steve Trippe, put out regarding the top 10 reasons that people aren’t making progress, he listed one reason as being that people have no perception of what a real 10 out of 10 rating of perceived exertion is. He said that most people’s 10 is a 4, at best. I agree with Steve whole heartedly here, and I think that psychological fear is probably the biggest thing holding people back from really making the kind of physical changes they would like to make. Most people are afraid of injuring their joints, or they think something is wrong when heat load and acid load start to deviate. In short, at the slightest sense of discomfort, most personal training clients pack it in and shut it down. The protocols in MASS 1 are great for edging people in the direction of pushing themselves harder and harder and harder. Much of this is based on Pavlovian conditioning of answering the bell in timed set and rest methods as well as seeing themselves make numeric progress and continuing to chase further progress from a dopaminergic response mechanism. There’s a lot to say about MASS 1, which is why it is a book, but a big thing that it does is it puts a mountain in front of people, and it challenges them to climb it. It creates an environment where I am asking you to take a 16 week journey into losing yourself and learning yourself at the same time. I want you to burn down your former set of beliefs about yourself and emerge as the Phoenix. When people go through this journey, they come out understanding how important appropriate calories are for what they’re trying to accomplish. They understand how important appropriate sleep is for them. They understand how important social relationships are for them. When people finish MASS 1, they have street cred, and they feel like they’ve got a seat at the cool kid’s table…because they do. Ben House shared the following statement regarding his experience and views on using MASS 1 workouts with clients.
“They learn the meat and potato gym movements (you can regress and progress exercise selection as needed). They get good at these movements through practice and a ton of reps at relatively lower loads (lower injury risk and their nervous system isn’t likely capable of pushing high weight anyways yet).
They also continually see results much like the carnival sledgehammer. Ding. Every workout they tend to get a little higher. Ding. Ding. And they just feel cool because they are using lots of equipment and generally crushing it. Ding. Ding. Ding.
And then they get more results and the dopamine waterfall continues.
“Changes to body composition appear to be key in the reinforcement necessary for continual use of the treatment protocols over long periods of time, providing the cheerleader effect for continuation of an intervention.” (Clark, 2015)
The intervention becomes its own feedforward cycle and eventually you as the professional can just step away as they progress to autopilot. And the spotlight moves fully to them and completely away from the coach. Remember none of this is about you – it is about empowering the client to take ownership of the process.” (Ben House)
When people finish the journey through MASS 1, they always ask, what’s next? MASS 1 is the red pill…there’s no going back after that. Now you have to take different journeys into learning yourself and improving yourself. Thankfully your organism is so beautiful and complicated that there is never an end to these adventures. The next great adventure that we take people through is MASS 2…Ethan and I are pretty predictable guys who love a good formula and love watching it work over and over like a chemical cascade reaction. MASS 2 is another 16 week journey. This time the journey has 4 different training days built into the training week that target slightly different fitness qualities. There’s no point in targeting different fitness qualities when someone has no fitness in the beginning of working with you. When people go through MASS 2, their performance metrics typically sky rocket and they start doing things they didn’t think they would ever be able to do. I have a 58 year old client who now benches 225. He never dreamed of being able to bench 2 plates on the bar. He still doesn’t believe he can do it. Every time I put on weight that he can do, he says things like, who’s that for?…that’s not for me. It’s really hard to summarize MASS 2, and this article is already getting to the point where it is too long, but let’s just say that I consider it to be real training, and what gets doled out to people when they’re physically and psychologically ready for that.
So there you have 45 weeks of training for new people who start working with you, and I’m pretty sure you’ll have about a 100% retention rate with that plan. The nice part about having a pre-determined plan is that you don’t have to think about the program during the session. During the session, you can be present with the person you’re with. You can also invest cognitive energy towards guiding them in lifestyle management factors taking place in the other 23 hours of their life where they aren’t in the gym. In closing out this article, I want to say that I cringe every time I hear people make the statement, “you have to meet people where they are”, and I equally hate the quote, “give them some of what you want, and some of what they want”. Those quotes are practically meaningless in my opinion, and they actually offer zero specific actionable steps. Instead I would say this, analyze humans to the greatest extent you can. Notice the behavioral trends that the masses display. Learn to strategically guide people towards the closest thing to optimal human physical development you are capable of coaching. That’s all I’m doing here, and this is exactly what I do with clients that I work with. People talk about how cookie cutter programs are bad…well in my opinion cookie cutter programs will make you a lot of money and work for pretty much everybody if it’s well thought out. In the back of my head, I always keep something that Mike Boyle said in mind, which I’ll paraphrase here. You’ve probably heard that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, right? How about, I’ll lead the horse to water and if he doesn’t want to drink, then I’ll grab him by the ears and shove his face in the bucket until he drinks or drowns? I bet he’ll drink.