7 Ways to Safely Increase Your Clients’ Workout Intensity

Fitness Classes by Nottingham Trent University, licensed under Creative Commons
Fitness Classes by Nottingham Trent University, licensed under Creative Commons

Over the past few years, more personal trainers have become aware of the importance of movement quality over quantity. This new way of training has led trainers to stress corrective exercise over regular strength training. The problem that has resulted? Clients are not reaching their goals because they are not being pushed hard enough. Thankfully, the solution is simple: just increase their workout intensity.

When working with clients, it is important to remember one thing and one thing only. Your job is to help your clients look and feel better. Yes, movement quality is always important – especially for keeping your clients safe and injury-free. But you should not be afraid of pushing them and making them work hard.

The main issue that is preventing personal trainers from pushing their clients is a fear of hurting their clients. It’s great that you care about your clients’ overall well-being, but hard does not necessarily mean dangerous. With smart programming, safe training and challenging training does not have to be mutually exclusive.

Here are 7 ways to make your clients work hard while keeping them safe.

Decrease rest periods

Program a circuit of at least 4 exercises and alternate them between upper body and lower body exercises. This way, you can improve their cardiovascular work capacity without being affected by muscular fatigue. Encourage your clients to complete every exercise in the circuit before taking a break. Also be sure to record the amount of rest that they get so that you can track their progress. An ability to begin the next set with less rest shows that their ability to recover is improving.

Isometric Holds

Two words: wall sit. So simple, yet so universally hated. Choose a position and hold for the desired length of time. Progressively increase the length of the hold until clients reach 1 min. From there, find ways to make the exercise more difficult rather than opting for more time. You can also incorporate smaller holds into normal sets. For instance, if doing inverted rows, have your clients hold the top position for several seconds before lowering themselves back down.


Work your way up or down a desired number of reps. For instance, begin with 10 pushups, then 9 pushups, then 8, and so on until you reach 1. Alternatively, you can start with 1 rep and work your way up to 10. I like to pair two exercises and get clients to do one in a descending ladder and the other in an ascending ladder. A pairing that I use often is TRX rows and pushups. The client would do 10 rows and 1 pushup, then immediately into 9 rows and 2 pushups until they finish with 1 row and 10 pushups. The idea is to complete the entire set without rest and as quickly as possible. I also like to time these ladder exercises. This way clients can see measurable progress when they are able to complete the same ladder in less time.

Countdown Reps

This technique combines isometric holds with the ladder format. I originally got this idea from Ben Bruno, a personal trainer based out of Los Angeles. With this scheme, you would perform the desired amount of reps of an exercise (let’s say 5). On the fifth rep, you hold the top position for five seconds and then move on to do four reps. Hold the fourth rep for four seconds then do three reps, until you end with the final rep.


As Many Rounds As Possible. Popularized by CrossFit, AMRAPs are exactly what it sounds like. Set up a circuit of exercises, pick a length of time, and away you go. As always, I like creating well-rounded circuits that include a squat, a pull, a deadlift, and a push movement. By following this simple structure, you are still able to easily scale the difficulty of the circuit based on the abilities of your client. For instance, a novice client would find a circuit of step ups, TRX rows, glute bridges, and incline pushups to be challenging. For a more advanced client, you can program barbell squats, pullups, Romanian deadlifts, and medicine ball pushups. I generally go with 5, 10, or 15 minute increments with the clientele that I have. Again, this is a great way to measure fitness progress as clients can aim to complete more rounds in the allotted time frame.


Another popular CrossFit protocol, EMOM stands from Every Minute On the Minute. For this format, you choose one exercise, a timeframe, and the number of reps. For example, 20 kettlebell swings and 5 minutes. This means the client performs 20 kettlebell swings at the top of each minute for 5 minutes. In other words, each round lasts for one minute. The faster they complete the 20 swings, the more rest they get until the next minute begins.


What is known as Tabata training in the mainstream fitness market is a very poor representation of the true protocol. However, using the Tabata style is still an effective way to increase your clients’ work capacity. The Tabata protocol is 3 sets of 20 seconds of maximal effort work alternated with 10 seconds of rest for a total of 4 minutes. This type of training is well suited for use with cardio equipment. It would also be suitable for full body movements like squats or burpees. The original intent of the Tabata protocol is to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity, so using this protocol for something like bicep curls would not be very effective.

Some of these techniques (ladders, AMRAPS, EMOM, Tabata) are short in the amount of time it takes. This makes them very easy to incorporate into the end of a strength workout. Decreasing rest periods is something you can progressively incorporate day by day or week to week. Isometric holds and countdown reps are things you can add to your clients’ everyday training for some variety.

Whatever you choose to incorporate, always remember to keep your clients’ capabilities in mind. Select exercises that they can perform well. Pick a time frame that they can handle. If you can nail these two things, you will be able to make your clients work hard and keep t

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