Training the Obese or Overweight Client

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Every night I come home from work where I usually sit down, make a protein shake of some sort, defrag my brain for 20-30 minutes (ie: put some light jazz or classical music on the radio), and chillax.  Afterwards, I’ll pop open my laptop, procrastinate, read some miscellaneous stuff, and then start sifting through emails and respond to queries from distance coaching clients and such.

After that, I’ll play catch up on any other “project(s)” I have in the works:  articles, programs, or future blog ideas.  Yes, my life is that exciting.

The latter, however, is what got me last night.  Sometimes I’ll think of a good blog idea from a conversation I had at the facility, or I’ll read something in an article or book and want to elucidate my own thoughts on the matter. Or, much like last night, I’ll draw a blank, start hyperventilating into a brown bag, and ask for help on Facebook.  Before I hit the hay last night, here’s what I left as my status update

Quick, give me an idea for a blog post!

I woke up this morning still not really sure what I wanted to write about, but thankfully, a few “friends” came to my rescue.

One idea in particular which a handful of people suggested – and it’s actually something I’ve been meaning to write about, but just never got to it – is the whole concept of how to go about training obese clients.   Given the popularity of shows like The Biggest Loser (and the inevitable face palm I give myself everytime I watch an episode), I thought it would cool to jot down a few ideas.

The Anti-Biggest Loser Approach

Since this is a pretty heavy (ha, no pun intended, sorry) subject, and one that could easily turn into a full-length article, I’m going to instead write this post in list format and use more of a bullet-point approach.  Basically, all I want to do here is

  • The most important thing you need to remember when training an obese client is that you can throw the rules out the window.  I remember an article that Mike Boyle wrote on the topic not too long ago where he stated that, much to my surprise, there are a few things that he WON’T do with an obese client, namely:  foam roll, static stretch, core work, and single training.

What the What???

  • I know it sounds like blasphemy to say the above should be omitted, especially given that they’re pretty much the staples of any well-rounded program, but here’s some rationale.

Foam Roll:  for many, this will be a workout on it’s own, and will undoubtedly affect the rest of the training session moving forward.  Getting up, down, then back up again is going to be cumbersome for the obese client.  Moreover, and this is something I didn’t think of until Mike pointed it out, it could very well be embarrassing for the client – and that’s something you want to avoid at all costs.

Static Stretching:  much like above, stretching can be problematic.  And, to be honest, as much as I feel that tissue quality and health IS important – when you’re dealing with someone who’s upwards of 100+ lbs overweight, there are more pressing issues to be dealt with and prioritized.  You know, stuff like not having a heart attack.

Core Work:  here is where I kinda disagree with Mike (to a degree).  I think much of the “core” work that obese clients will receive will come from the training in general, so there’s no inherent need to include a lot of isolated core work.  That said, I do feel that exercises such as standing band pallof presses (and the like) are a valuable addition, and provide a lot of bang for their buck with regards to training obese clientele.  Planks, on the other hand, not worth it.

Single Leg Work:  under normal circumstances, I’d place single leg work as arguably one the most important components of a well-rounded program.  But here, not so much.  Think about it, if you’re working with an individual who’s 300+ lbs, that’s A LOT of weight to place on the knee joint, and it’s something that’s going to be far too challenging for them to do – maybe even dangerous.

  • Again, and I can’t reiterate this enough, it’s about showing them SUCCESS and not making them feel like a walking ball of fail! The last thing you want to do is have him or her perform exercises that are too hard or just plain impossible to do, because the likelihood they’ll come back is slim to none.
  • On that note, please, for the love of god, stop with this whole “functional training” mumbo-jumbo.  Having a client juggle oranges while standing with one leg on a BOSU is NOT functional.  It’s dumb, and a complete waste of time.

  • In its place, I’d focus more on basic movement patterns.  You know, things that they’ll actually use in every day life:  squat pattern, hip hinge, upper body push, upper body pull, etc.  Too, it probably wouldn’t hurt to include some basic dynamic movement drills into the mix as well.

So, using a few examples, it may look something like this:

Squat Pattern:  Bench of Box Squat using bodyweight only to start.  In addition, don’t be too concerned with attaining proper squat depth here.  Surprisingly, some obese clients will demonstrate great hip mobility with the squat; but for those who have a problem, just use a ROM that they’re able to achieve and work off of that.

***Of note:  I’ve found that the TRX is a FANTASTIC tool to use when teaching an obese client to squat.  By un-loading their bodyweight, you can easily “groove” an almost picture perfect squat pattern with the TRX.

Upper Body Push:  Preferably, I like to use a push-up pattern here where we elevate the client on the pins of a power rack; or by using the wall.  Whatever works

Hip Hinge Pattern:  Depending on how kinesthetically aware they are, you can use an elevated trap bar, or, go straight up dowel rod against their back to groove the proper deadlift pattern.

If the former, again, use an elevated setting with the trap bar.  If the latter, simply place a dowel rod against their backside, and make sure that they maintain all three point of contact (band of their head, middle of shoulder blades, and sacrum) as they practice the hip hinge pattern.

Alternatively, exercises such as pull-throughs and maybe even kettlebell swings – done correctly – would be an ideal option here.

Upper Body Pull:  Again, this is where the TRX becomes a valuable piece of equipment as it uses their own bodyweight as resistance and can easily be adjusted to fit their current strength levels.   And, of course, we could also implement exercises like standing 1-arm cable rows or band rows here as well.

Dynamic Movement:  Here, we can possibly incorporate simple movement drills like high knee walks, or maybe even something like a modified yoga plex.

Also, you can include things that are more metabolic in nature like med ball circuits, or even the airdyne bike depending how much you want them to hate life (and you).

Putting it all together, a workout may look something like this:

Warm-Up:  walk on treadmill for 5-10 minutes

Pre Work:  X-Band Walks 2×10/leg, Band Pull-Aparts 2×10

A1.  Bench Squats x 8
A2.  Push-Up – elevated on pins x 8
A3.  Pull-Through x 10
A4.  TRX STEEP Inverted Row x 10
A5.  Band Pallof Press – alphabet (see video above) x 1/side
A6.  Overhead Med Ball Stomps to Floor x 10

Perform above circuit for 4-5 rounds (taking as much time between exercises as needed), with 90-120 seconds of rest between each round.

Follow this with either a circuit of Kettlebell (of DB) Farmer Carries, Prowler, or airdyne work for 5-10 minutes.

I could easily keep going, but this is already getting long enough.  And all of this isn’t taking into consideration the diet side of things.  That’s a whole nother ball of wax.

In a nutshell, though, it pretty much gives you a basic idea of how I would go about designing a program for an obese or overweight client.  It’s pretty much the polar opposite of what The Biggest Loser portrays – but I’d be willing to bet that my way will yield better long-term success without pounding people into the ground.

Have any of your own nuggets to share?  Feel free to comment below!

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