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

Clients’ motivation: Ally of the personal trainer

Personal Trainer: Find your clients' motivation as a design element of your fitness program
Motivation: Ally of the personal trainer 123RF – Copyright: Phartisan


A very good friend of mine joined Free Form Fitness this winter. Over fifty, he had seldom seen the inside of a gym. But he is a passionate golfer. He thrives on playing the game, watching the game, understanding the game. Winter is a very difficult time for him; he leaves his golf course in November and remains in a holding pattern until it opens again in the spring.

As we were planning a golfing trip, I highlighted the benefits he would gain from exercising under the supervision of a personal  trainer.  He agreed to give it a try, but certainly not because exercise was his passion…..  His real passion is golf.

Understanding clients’ real motivations to exercise is a key element in the tool kit of a personal trainer when designing a fitness training program.

A good starting point is to choose the right definition of the word “motivation”, one that fits the context of personal training. “Motivation” can be defined as the expectation of pleasure or of a measurable benefit. This definition is helpful in the fitness context because it offers two ways of defining the gains that clients can expect to obtain from their training program: an emotional gain, and an objective one.

Relying on the definition we are proposing, my friend’s personal trainer can present a picture of him feeling energized, strong and better equipped to compete with his golf buddies because of the training he is doing. This creates an emotional image of well-being. The trainer can also present a picture of my friend being able to gain a specific number of yards on his golf shots, which is an objective result of gaining strength.

When building a training regimen for your clients, here are some considerations that may guide you in your program design:

  • Probe the underlying motivation of clients

    If they tell you: “I want to be fitter”, it tells you very little.  Probe for more. If they tell you: “I want to lose five pounds”, it gives you a bit more but ask why also. The idea here is to get to the true motivations of their presence in the gym;

  • Establish a timeline 

    Find out if there is a specific date associated with clients’ motivations to join a fitness club: It may be that they want to lose weight because they are attending a wedding in three months. If a specific time frame is not part of their motivation, establish one in consultation with them. This has the added benefit of managing clients’ expectations if they are joining a fitness club for a set number of training sessions;

  • Create images in the clients’ mind

    Once clients’ motivations are better known, create images that fit such motivations and use these images in your conversations with them. Try to create images that cater to feelings as well as to objective results;

  • Check, and check again

    Constantly check for evolving motivations or changing ones. This is part of building productive and lasting relationships with your clients, and always responding to change.

I played golf with my friend, during and since our trip. He is thrilled about his improved golf game. I witnessed those improvements by losing money to him on small bets….. And he has lengthened his golf shots by measurable distances. Best of all, he is still going to a gym….

Exercise Injuries: How to provide a safe training environment

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine was training a woman who was about to go on vacation for a week in Florida. Because she was flying out the next day, my colleague decided to play it safe by having her client do mountain climbers instead of burpees. The client ended up tearing her Achilles tendon and she was not able to go on her trip.

Accidents will happen (sometimes fatal) and some things you simply can’t predict or have any control over. My colleague still felt terrible about it even though it wasn’t her fault. Exercise injuries are unfortunate, but they can and will happen.

All you can do is ensure that you provide your clients with a safe training environment and prepare yourself to deal with emergencies.

Here are 3 things you can do to minimize the risk of injuries.

Select appropriate exercises

Are plyometric exercises the best thing to do for an overweight client? Are endless crunches the best way to train someone’s abs?

Before you make a client do a certain exercise, ask yourself this. Is there an alternative exercise that is safer but just as effective?

Gray Cook introduced the term self-limiting exercise to describe exercises that are almost impossible to do wrong. Once the weakest link breaks down, you have to stop the exercise. Some examples would be the Farmer’s Carry, Inverted Row, or Jump Rope.

Always be aware of your surroundings

Is there anything your client could possibly trip over? Will people walking by get in the way? Where’s the best place for you to stand in case he stumbles? Do you know how to properly spot her during specific exercises?

Be proactive when choosing your space. Make sure that there is enough room for your clients to perform the exercise without distraction.

When doing single leg exercises where your client could lose balance, stand on the side of the working leg. She will be able to catch herself with the non-working leg, but not if she falls the other way.

Make sure proper form is used for each rep

Don’t be afraid to cut a set short if he see that the client is struggling with a weight. Make it clear very early on that quality trumps quantity. You are just reinforcing bad form and risking injury by letting him continue on with the last few reps.

What to do when an injury occurs

Don’t panic. Your client may be in shock. He needs you to remain calm and to be in control of the situation.

You should have some form of first aid training. It’s a pain to renew it every few years, but you will never know when you will need it. Repeating the same things every time you take the course gets boring, but repetition is what engrains the skills so that they become instinctual. Under these circumstances you don’t want to risk being paralyzed in thought. You need to react immediately to get your client to proper medical attention as quickly as possible.

You can’t let this fear of hurting someone get in the way of pushing your clients to become stronger and better. You are being paid to get your clients to do things that they may not do themselves. This extra little push is what helps drive results.

By selecting appropriate exercises, being aware of your surroundings, and ensuring your clients are exercising with proper form, you can be absolutely sure that you are providing your clients with a safe and effective service.

McGill’s Big 3 Exercises for Low Back Pain

Low back pain is an ailment that affects a significant number of people. Whether you are a competitive athlete, a weekend warrior, or a complete couch potato, low back pain doesn’t seem to escape anyone.

The prevalence of low back pain means that it is no surprise that this will be one of the top complaints from your clients. Knowing how to minimize the symptoms will improve your clients quality of life and earn you a sterling reputation.

Dr. Stuart McGill, a biomechanics professor at the University of Waterloo, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on low back pain. His texts Low Back Disorders and Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance are great resources for understanding the mechanisms behind chronic low back pain.

Low back pain is a multi-faceted issue. One common cause is lack of spine stability combined with poor hip mobility. When clients lack the hip mobility to perform movements properly, the spine is often the next place to go to get the mobility. The constant flexion and extension through the spine to compensate for the lack of hip mobility overtaxes the muscles surrounding spine. Therefore, teaching your clients how to properly stabilize their spine is an important early step to managing low back pain.

Known as McGill’s Big 3, the following exercises should become a staple to develop spinal stability for your clients with low back pain.

Curl Up


Top image: Correct form. Head and shoulders are slightly elevated from the floor. Bottom image: Incorrect form. Head and shoulders are too high
Top image: Correct form. Head and shoulders are slightly elevated from the floor.
Bottom image: Incorrect form. Head and shoulders are too high

The purpose of this exercise is to activate and strengthen the rectus abdominus without producing spinal flexion like a sit up would.

To perform the movement, have your client lie on their back with one leg extended and the other leg bent. This helps to stabilize the lumbar spine, reducing movement through the area. Place their hands, palms down, under the lumbar spine.

Elevate the head and shoulders just off the floor. The head and neck must be rigid and move as one unit.

Side Plank

Side plank on feet
Side plank on feet

The side plank is a great exercise to build lateral stability.

To begin the movement, have your client lie on their side, supported by her elbow and hip, with the knees bent to 90 degrees. Bracing the spine, your client should elevate her hips from the floor, using a hip hinge pattern. The hips should be fully extended, forming a straight line from the head to the knees. Ensure that the spine remains stable and that movement only occurs through the hip and shoulder.

Bird dog


Top image: Start position. Bottom image: Finish position. Ensure that a straight line forms from heel to fist.
Top image: Start position.
Bottom image: Finish position. Ensure that a straight line forms from heel to fist.

The bird dog allows you to train your clients’ back extensors without placing the spine under a large compressive load.

Have your client get into a quadruped position (on their hands and knees). Help them find a neutral spine position. Lightly brace the torso and extend one leg and the opposite arm until it is horizontal to the floor. Ensure that the spine remains stable and that movement only occurs through the hip and shoulder. The following video demonstrates the correct way of performing the bird dog and an example of the incorrect way to perform the bird dog.


McGill’s research shows that muscular endurance, not strength is the main issue when it comes to low back pain. Therefore, the “Big 3″ exercises should be performed for time to build up muscular endurance.

Begin with sets of 5 reps with a 3 second hold for each rep.Work up to 10 reps before increasing the length of the isometric hold. When time is increased, decrease the number of reps back to 5 and work up to 10.

Week 1 – 5 reps at 3 seconds

Week 2 – 8 reps at 3 seconds

Week 3 – 10 reps at 3 seconds

Week 4 – 5 reps at 5 seconds

Quality Over Quantity

Quality is the most important aspect for all of these exercises. Once form deteriorates, stop the exercise and allow your client to rest. If they are unable to control their spine with these lower level movements, it would be unreasonable to expect that they will be able to control their spine in a more difficult movement, such as a squat or deadlift.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Exercise You Should Know: Farmer Carry

When should you use it?

The better question should be, when shouldn’t you use it? Farmer carries and its many variations can arguably be useful for just about anyone and is good for just about any goal. Well-known strength coach, Dan John, considers loaded carries as the most important movement in his list of 5 basic human movements (carries, squat, hinge, push, and pull). I have athletes doing them. I have 80 year old grandmothers doing them (I also call farmer carries the grocery shopping exercise in this age group). They are good for people with shoulder injuries and they are also good for people with hip issues.

The farmer carry helps to build strength in the shoulders, back, core, forearms, grip, and legs. It teaches people what good posture looks and feels like and how to maintain it while moving. It can also be used as a conditioning tool to build work capacity and endurance when going for longer distances or for time.

Using Carries for Rehab

Farmer carries are a great way to work on building upper body strength if your clients are limited by a shoulder injury. The main functions of the rotator cuff muscles are to keep the head of the humerus (upper arm) connected to the scapula and to stabilize the entire shoulder joint. Adding heavy weight in your hand forces the rotator cuff to turn on to keep your arm in place. Once the rotator cuff gets stronger, you can slowly begin to reintroduce upper body exercises that may have previously caused pain.

Dr. Stuart Mcgill, a spine specialist, is an advocate of using the farmer carry as a way to train core stability to help with low back pain. Using a single-handed carry (also called a suitcase carry) is a great way to work on lateral core stability as well as hip stability.

How to coach it

Pick up heavy weights.

Stand tall with abs tight.

Walk as normally as you can at an even pace.


What to watch out for

Tall posture the whole way through, leading with the chest. No forward lean.

Relatively normal gait. There should be no shuffling or waddling from side to side.