Training Athletes vs. General Population Clients

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A few weeks ago I presented at the NSCA Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference and by happenstance (and because I like to talk about myself) I mentioned to the crowd that I don’t work with a lot of athletes anymore.


Instead, I explained, currently 90-95% of my clientele are made up of general population clients.

You know, “normal” people.

What’s more, I noted that I actually preferred training them over professional athletes.

There was a cacophony of crickets chirping and cold, blank stares. You would have thought I had just told the crowd I had given up everything just so that I could go walk the land and practice kung-fu.


During the subsequent Q&A later that day I had a handful of people approach with pitchforks to ask me to further elaborate my comment from earlier:

“So, uh, you said you stopped training athletes to work with general population clients.

Like, why?”

Here’s What I Said

Before I peel back that onion, though, I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room. I think the overlying feeling in the fitness industry is that if you get to the point where you work with (professional) athletes or celebrities you’ve somehow “made it.”

You’re elite.

You can now write a memoir or some shit.

Quick Aside: I also feel there’s a tendency for people within the industry to give more credence or credibility to certain certifications over others. For example if someone is a CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) they’re obviously smarter and more qualified than a lowly CPT (Certified Personal Trainer)….and they can probably walk on water.1

I don’t know, certifications are great and all, but I guess I fall into the camp that tries not to place too much weight on the letters next to someone’s name, and more so on their experience and overall track record.

I get it: Training Gary from accounting doesn’t attach itself to as much prestige and luster as, say, an NFL player or Zac Efron.

However, as my friend and colleague, Mike Connelly (of Rebell Strength & Conditioning located in Chicago), eloquently states:

We all train people. Whether or not they get paid to play a sport does not change their “peopleness” nor does it impact your status as an elite trainer. You either know what you’re doing or you don’t and there is plenty of both on either side.

Training professional athletes has its benefits and setbacks, as does training general population clients.

I’ve done both.

I can tell you that throughout my career I’ve been every bit as excited watching one of my female clients nail her first strict, bodyweight chin-up as when I was watching an athlete of mine make his Major League debut.

Fun Tony Factoid: I watched one of my former athletes make his Big League debut the night of my Bachelor party. I happened to look up at the television at whatever bar we were at and…..BAM, there he was.2

Anyways, far be it from me to tell you which is the better fit or more rewarding route to take.

All I can do is speak for myself.

Speaking of which, how about I finally get to the meat and potatoes of the post.

“Tony, why did you go back to training regular people?”

Here’s What I Actually Said

1. You’re not my Mom, you can’t tell me what to do.

2. The truth is I still do train athletes. It’s just, you know, my previous coaching position was at an institution – Cressey Sports Performance – which is known for working with a metric boat load of professional athletes.

Especially overhead athletes.

So, in effect, me switching gears and not training (professional) athletes at the same abundance is very much a result of that.

I simply am not around them as much.

Rest assured, though, if Mike Trout wanted to train at CORE I wouldn’t turn him away….;o)

3. When I decided to leave CSP and open up my own small studio in Boston I knew the demographic I’d be catering to most would be general population.

Partly because of the location of my studio, and partly because that’s what I wanted to do.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved working with athletes – and I still do.

However, as far as fulfillment is concerned or things that really gave me joy, outside of a good tickle fight or a heaping bowl of ice-cream, I had always gotten more out of helping someone nail their first 2x bodyweight squat or helping someone finally conquer his or her’s chronic low-back pain.

I wanted to get back to that and the joy it brought me.

So that’s what I did.

Bye Felicia.


Besides, I don’t feel there’s any less pedigree of coaching involved at accomplishing any of the things mentioned above compared to improving someone’s VO2 max or vertical jump from 31 to 32 inches.

In fact, this quote from Vince Gabriele sums things up nicely:

I get more satisfaction helping a level 3 become a level 7, then a level 8 become a level 9. So much more rewarding.

4. Also, too, if I really wanted to be honest with any young fitness professionals reading:

  • There’s more general population clients out there than professional athletes. It’s in all mathematical likelihood that, despite how important you feel you are and that only the elite of the elite can (and should) be privy to your superior training methodologies, you may, never, work with professional athletes.
  • But if you do, training athletes can provide a level of prestige that can be leveraged to garner more business.3 However, and I think a lot of gym owner will agree with this, it’s the general population clients that pay the rent and often result in more consistent revenue.

Something to think about.

And That’s That

If anything I hope this little rant resonates with those who may struggle with the notion that they’re “less qualified” because they don’t work with athletes.

That’s a bunch of hogwash.

Maturity in a trainer/coach is revealed in ‘the process of progress’ rather than who’s connected to it.4

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.

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  1. I remember early in my career, especially when I started writing for sites like T-Nation, people were surprised when I told them I was “only” a CPT.  They were somehow flabbergasted that I still knew what gluconeogenesis was or that I could actually write a coherent program to get people strong despite not, you know, training athletes or being a CSCS. Full Disclosure: I did eventually get my CSCS, but for the first five years of my career I was “just” a personal trainer.

  2. That night also marked my first shot of whateverthefuck Jake handed me. It was awful.

  3. Just don’t be the douche that goes on and on and on about how you train professional athletes when you worked with that one Olympian, that one time, ten years ago.

  4. Words of wisdom via strength coach Vince McConnell.

Comments for This Entry

  • Stephen Gurtowski

    As my whole career has been working with "general population" clients I appreciate this post, Tony. You're spot on. I think to be an effective coach/trainer for this group one needs to set the ego aside, be compassionate, patient, always question the conventional wisdom of "training dogma", and be flexible with programming. Obviously one can't give medical advice, but another role that is often thrust upon you by this population is one of a "health" professional. It requires a lot of care and thoughtfulness to be an extension of the client's healthcare team (their perception) while remaining within one's scope of practice. It's a real responsibility you have to take very seriously. Some of my successes have been a result of simply asking "Have you seen a doctor about that?"

    December 24, 2017 at 5:55 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    I've trained former college athletes, Navy Seals, competitive marathon runners and shit load of general population clients and I pretty much do the same thing, fundamental human movements. The only different I've noticed between general population clients and the athlete is their level of motivation or lack of it. Great post Tony.

    December 24, 2017 at 11:47 am | Reply to this comment

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