A Tale of Two Clients

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..

Even for those who aren’t avid readers, the words above are fairly recognizable. At some point in everyone’s life they’ve (probably) heard the phrase absent of whether or not they know the origin:

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Yeah, I haven’t read it either.

But the book reference serves as a nice introduction to today’s post as click bait. Because, you know, everyone goes bat-shit crazy over Dickens quotes.

I was asked two questions recently (from two different people) that I felt would be best served answering here as I know a lot of personal trainers and coaches read this site.

Question #1:

I’m curious what’s the longest amount of time you had the same non-athlete client and I’d love to see more articles on what makes a good lifting trainee/student!

Question #2:

Not sure if you have touched on this in a previous blog post but would love to hear your thoughts on how you go about motivating your general fitness clients vs. your baseball players. I imagine they come in with different experiences, expectations, etc. and I imagine they both pose unique challenges in getting them to engage and buy into the process.

Two different questions, albeit not altogether too dissimilar.

Before co-founding Cressey Sports Performance in 2007 I worked as a personal trainer in both the corporate setting and commercial setting….for five years. That’s five years of early mornings, late nights, working on weekends, working on Holidays, and working with every permutation of human being you can possibly think of save for a one-legged pirate and an Astronaut.

Repeating the borrowed prose from above, my life literally was “the best of times, and the worst of times.”

It was the best of times because I was doing something I loved. Right out of the gate I was making a living wearing sweatpants to work and hanging out in a gym helping people get stronger, lose fat, address an injury, and making people of the opposite sex want to hang out with them.

That didn’t suck.

Too, it was a point in my life where I was a sponge for knowledge ( I still am). Upon graduating from school I thought I knew what I was doing – I graduated Magna Cum Laude, I played four years of college baseball, I had been lifting weights since I was 13, I had six-pack, I got this! But once my first client was handed to me I experienced a hefty reality check.

I didn’t really know as much as I thought I did.

Luckily my first client survived, I didn’t set the gym on fire or anything, things were going to be okay.

It was that time where I found sites like T-Nation.com and other reputable publications that helped me peel back the onion and understand that what I learned in school wasn’t exactly how things are in the real world. I made it a point to read, and read a lot. And I got better.

It was the worst of times because life as a personal trainer isn’t shall we say……all that glamorous.

As mentioned above you work when others don’t, there’s a bit of “politics” involved – pressure to hit quotas and numbers at the expense of quality programming and coaching, and you learn quickly that life as a trainer is just as much about becoming a good “people person” as it is a coach.

Put another way: some (and I’d say most) clients are amazing, wonderful people; while others are life sucking, Debbie Downer/Johnny Raincloud, soul crushers that would give Godzilla a run for this money.

Given all that, however, I wouldn’t change anything from my past as a fitness professional. The one piece of advice I give all incoming personal trainers – especially to the entitled ones who think they’re going to train professional athletes their first day on the job1 – is that you should work in a commercial gym setting.

For 1-2 years.

You need to grind it out, work shitty hours, and learn to work with as wide of a variety of clientele as possible. You do this, and I GUARANTEE you’ll get better and learn to appreciate which niche – if any – you’d like to pursue to further your career.

In my 13 years as a personal trainer and coach I’ve had the opportunity and honor to work with so many different people. Everything from young athletes to professional athletes to CEOs, doctors, fat loss clients, powerlifters, post rehab, and anything you can think of in between. Still waiting for that Astronaut, though.

I’ve had clients who have worked with me for 5+ years – both in person and in a distance based format. Most often when I’ve been working with someone that long they’re someone I’d train for free. I’d be lying if I said you never build a rapport past the trainer-client dichotomy with some people. You absolutely do.

I’ve had clients become really good friends, and I even have one who’s going to be an attendant in my wedding this May.

I wouldn’t say this is normal or happens all the time.

But given that circumstance is more of an outlier scenario, here are some quick bullet point traits I find make for a good client(s).

1. They pay. You have bills, right? It sounds tacky and trite, I know, but if you have a client who pays, pays on time, and is willing to do it for months, and if you’re lucky, years on end….that’s grounds for a solid start.

2. They respect you as a professional. Admittedly, there are a number of examples across the country of inept personal trainers and coaches who give the industry a bad reputation. All you have to do is peruse YouTube for 30 minutes and a small portion of your soul dies.

So part of me understands why the industry as a whole is looked down upon by many people.

But nothing grinds my gears more than when someone hires me for whatever reason – fat loss, performance, dealing with an injury – and then proceed to question/bitch/whine every…single….thing I ask them to do.

When this happens I do this:

Me: “Say Al, what is it that you do for a living?

Al: “Well, Tony, as it happens, I’m an Astronaut.”

Me: “What the what. Finally! Can we be BFFs?

Al: “Only if we can practice karate in the garage.”

Me: “Obviously.”

“Also, you know, Al, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what the ideal ambient torsional velocity should be when ascertaining the longitudinal axis of a rocket during space docking.”

Al: “I would think not.”

Me: “Soooooo, shut up and do your freakin deadlifts.”

The point is: I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t question an accountant about their taxes or their lawyer about their lawyering. While being inquisitive is one thing (and should be expected), they shouldn’t constantly question your expertise with regards to differentiating flexion intolerant back pain from extension intolerant back pain.

Mind you, you should have a rationale and be able to explain everything written in a program. Conversely it’s not too much to ask that your client trust you. That is what they’re paying you for, right?

3. They show up on time. They schedule on time. They wear deodorant.

4. They do the work. Both in AND outside of the gym. I often give my clients homework. This may be something like asking them to keep a 3-day food diary, or maybe doing an extra active-recovery circuit on one of their “off” days from working with me. Are they compliant? The ideal one’s make an effort to be.

I’m sure I can easily keep going, and maybe I will at some point down the road. I’d encourage you to look up some of Alwyn Cosgrove’s stuff on the topic. He’s written several things on how to build an ideal client roster and how to fire clients if need be.

Meet Eddie

Eddie is a professional athlete (baseball). He works his ass off. I’d make a case that he’s one of the hardest working athletes I’ve ever coached.

Lets be honest: any professional athlete who chooses to spend his off-season in Massachusetts – we’re currently under 2+ feet of snow with more on the way – probably doesn’t need much motivation to train.

The thing about Eddie is sometimes he’s TOO motivated.

As much as it is for us coaches – as a team – to write effective, efficient, and safe programming, a large portion of our job is also to pull the reigns or pump the breaks when needed.

It’s not uncommon for me to tell Eddie to chill out and that it’s okay if he didn’t break his PR for the 16th consecutive week.

While Eddie is also an outlier, we’re very lucky to have so many hard-working and dedicated athletes (and not just baseball players) walk through our doors at Cressey Sports Performance.

Motivation, generally, isn’t too much of an issue when them. They’ll either put in the work or get released. Their choice.

Meet Robin

Robin is not an athlete. In fact, she’s a working professional who started training with us three months ago. She came to us with a vague background in strength training, but was also dealing with a few nagging injuries.

One of the advantages I have is that most people who seek out my services KNOW what they’re getting into. They read my stuff, they read Eric’s (Cressey) stuff, they read Greg Robins, Tony BonevechioMiguel Aragoncillo, and the rest the CSP’s staff material.

People know they’re not going to be doing Zumba. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So, in a way, most of the people I work with at CSP don’t need a whole lot of motivation to train. The brand sort of sells itself. What many of them do need – and especially in the case of Robin – is someone to help them gain their confidence back.

Some have been so “broken” for so long, and have worked with any number of other trainers, that it’s sometimes difficult to buy into what it is I have to say.

Showing them success is paramount.

They’re motivation is literally, training.

What can I do as their coach to get them to train pain free, or to do things that they thought they couldn’t do? It isn’t my objective to have everyone conventional deadlift on day one. Some people aren’t ready for that because it’s too aggressive or above their ability level. But I can have them perform some light glute bridges or some pull-throughs to get them to feel what turning on their glutes feels like in addition to grooving a hip hinge.

And then I can progress them from there.

If a female client can’t do a push-up, I’m NOT going to have her do “girl push-ups.” That’s lame and provides an initial connotation I’d prefer to avoid. Instead, she’s going to do push-ups – elevated on pins.

I’m going to show her success so that she gains some confidence. THAT’s oftentimes all the motivation anyone ever needs, and how I approach things with the bulk of my general fitness clients.

Prove to them that they CAN do “stuff.”  Once that happens it’s pretty much a domino effect in terms of progress and compliance with their programs. It’s not a sexy answer, but it works.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. Hahahahahahaahhahaha. That’s a good one. You probably think you’ll be paired with a Victoria Secret model your first day on eHamony too, right?

Comments for This Entry

  • Jon

    This is a really great article, Tony. Very insightful! How does the information above translate to your "distance" clients? Since you're not there to train them through each session, how do you keep them accountable, motivated, progressing, ensuring they're 'putting in the work', ect? Especially if, like Robin, they come to you with very limited experience in strength training? Thanks in advance!

    February 5, 2015 at 3:39 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      I've always stated that IN-person coaching trumps distance coaching every day of the week. However, with technology nowadays there's not as much of a gap as people think. Sure I can't be there to provide tactile feedback, but with videos (where I can watch, film my computer screen with products like ScreenFlow, and provide immediate audio feedback), it's not too bad. Plus, I know that most of the time, any program I write is going to be better than 95% of the programs anyone else would get working with a personal trainer at some random gym. It's a bit harder to get a gauge on compliance and motivation in the distance format. But I'd like to think that if someone is going to pay good money for a service (I'm not cheap), that they're motivated enough to do the work.

      February 6, 2015 at 7:35 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brent

    Sweet, thanks for answering my question Tony! With my clients I try to make as many analogies as possible. For instance, when they complain (some that is) of why I don't switch it up enough, I ask them how often they switch up their drive to work every day, or how often they switch up how they brush their teeth at night. Then I'll tell them that yes, sometimes training is monotonous, but when done correctly it is efficient and gets you results quicker! You wouldn't brush your teeth on one ft. (pistol squat tooth brushing?) because it is largely a waste of time (not to mention probably unsafe), unless of course your goal is to do just that (tooth brush championships?) If your goal is fat loss and/or muscle gain you are hitting the big lifts over and over again and to get them to buy in, I even compromise and do some isolated work (bicep, tricep, calf raise work etc.) on stuff they like so they can feel the 'burn.' Heck, I even throw in a BOSU ball for one of my clients (RFESS are the only thing I want her doing though on them) to compromise a little. It's a big game of compromise in my opinion with the gen. population, unless they are walking into a facility with established procedures and ways of doing things. In all honesty I don't blame my clients for being confused why I wouldn't program BOSU balls into their workouts. They are given so many mixed messages from previous trainers and the media. Actually had one client email my manager once upset cuz she didn't think I had a very big exercise toolbox this after doing 12 exercises with her in a session. I had to laugh about that one. Unfortunately she came from a trainer that did about 35 different exercises per session. 10 for creativty, 0 for effectiveness :) Thanks for letting me vent on your wall sir! :)

    February 5, 2015 at 10:08 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      I LOVE that analogy you used about the car drive and brushing the teeth....brilliant. I'm totally stealing that one. And by all means, vent away! That's what the comments section is for....;o)

      February 6, 2015 at 7:32 am | Reply to this comment

      • Brent

        Steal away please! Very timely conversation I might add considering I just watched Nick Tumminello's presentation on simplifying program design for different clients. He made the great pt. that 95% of people are F3 clients (fitness, function and fun). Some just wanna have fun AND get fit at the same time. Of course some in the industry emphasize fun over function and fitness (to the detriment of their client) but the trainer that can create a fun atmosphere while getting results is a winner winner that deserves a chicken dinner (though I prefer steak)

        February 6, 2015 at 11:04 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Guzzy

    Thanks Tony for the indepth answer. I've been working with an amazing personal trainer for 10 months and feel like I'm just starting to lift heavy so great validation to hear that long term clients exist. Abs: all about diet or what? Toughest area for female lifters to see a change in after having babies. My trainer says keep doing what I'm doing and it will come. Another blog perhaps?

    February 8, 2015 at 10:21 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nathan Clay Rogers

    Prove to them that they CAN do “stuff.” This line stood out for me. This is what I try and do on a daily basis as a coach. Thanks fore the great article!

    February 9, 2015 at 5:08 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kevin Mullins

    Tony, awesome article man. I feel I can relate to so many points of this after years with SCLA and now Equinox. So many powerful people (in their realm) immediately think they are going to seize the reigns when they step into mine. As a trainer I find developing a relationship with individuals that is based on authentic exchanges of information is almost more critical in the first few weeks than having someone bent over and covered in sweat. Thanks for always writing awesome pieces.

    February 15, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Very, VERY true. I've heard of trainers turning clients off because some (not all) go out of their way to relay info in a way that talks down to the client. I remember hearing a story of a trainer who earned the respect of a high-power higher up (in something) because she was able to explain and articulate her point of view and rationale for doing stuff in a way that wasn't callous or demeaning. The guy liked that and ended up becoming a long-term client. But you're right. Sometimes you have to lay down the gauntlet and call a spade a spade and let the client know that they're the client (and not the expert).

      February 16, 2015 at 5:33 pm | Reply to this comment

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