A friend of mine recently said “I’m still struggling with program building, I have this habit of doing a program then while I have them doing it, doubting myself and thinking it’s sh*t”.

This is actually more common than you think.

It’s a bit like when you finally decide what you’re going to say to that hot girl at work after weeks of deliberation, only to drop the ball at the end zone.

Like an invitation to ‘the pants party’, the effect often lies not so much in what is delivered but how it’s delivered and the self-belief behind the attempt.

So the question is, should we ever change a workout that we’ve written for a client?

Here are seven things you need to consider.

An average plan applied with 100% commitment and intensity will always trump an amazing plan that is difficult to implement properly

Give someone simple workouts that they can crush every time with high intensity (relative to whatever level they are at) and you will see better results than when you try to be clever and perfect every detail, spending too long explaining it all.

If you don’t believe me, go and do 6 rounds of 10 squats supersetted with 20 seconds max pace on the Assault Bike with 90 seconds recovery between sets.

Fifteen minutes later you will understand my point.

Sure a good workout will be more rounded and complete but the point is that being too smart can become a hindrance for you and your client.

The science of workouts is really quite simple

Thanks to the internet, ‘coaches’ pandering to people’s need for distraction and what I suspect is largely personal trainers own boredom, the fitness industry has become about exercises and workouts that look more like a circus act than a workout.

The reality is that if you give people 5-6 ‘bog standard’ exercises to do based on the foundational movement patterns (vertical push, vertical pull, horizontal push, vertical push, squat, hinge, rotation and carry) performed with excellent control, tension and tempo…

….they will progress well (aside from discussions of nutrition etc).

Feeling like you need to switch things up are usually down to seeing somebody else do a different combination, set and rep scheme, circuit and so on.

If you learn to see the commonalities between effective programs you will see that the basics really don’t differ much.

For example, should we do 4 x 6, 3 x 8, 5 x 5.

Well all of those options mean doing 24 or 25 reps. The difference is negligible for most people.

Should we do cardio for 20, 30 or 40 seconds? It probably doesn’t matter that much.

For the average PT client who wants to improve their body composition…

  • Challenge every muscle group 2-3 times per week. Whether you do this with single sets, supersets or circuits doesn’t really matter that much other than to make it more enjoyable, time efficient and to keep the session moving
  • Perform 2-4 sets of any one exercise depending on experience and recent training status
  • Push close to failure with great technique
  • Use slow eccentrics with a full, pain free range of motion to develop strength and muscle tissue
  • Ensure progressive overload each week by altering reps, sets and weights used slightly
  • Use longer rest breaks if strength and size is a priority, shorter rest breaks if fat loss is a priority
  • Address any glaring movement difficulties

The rest is often a matter of time availability, what best suits the set up of your working environment (equipment availability, space etc) and what your client will commit to because they enjoy it.

You should know already that fat loss will be determined by coaching your client through the right nutritional approach for them rather than creating some soul destroying killer circuit that supposedly burns more fat (it doesn’t nearly as much as you might think).

Understand the Principal of Slight Edge

Some trainers have expressed a feeling of being a fraud if the workouts are too simple.

Remember this.

Your client wants results. They want you to give them whatever brings results.

Provided it isn’t as much fun as watching a tree grow, they will be happy.

They don’t know what you know, so provided you are giving them the workouts and lifestyle knowledge that helps them lose fat, they will be happy – even if you are only using 50% of your large toolbox of fat loss magic!

If you have a ‘Slight Edge’ on someone in terms of knowledge, you can provide value and help them move forward. They don’t need the whole shop in one go.

Sometimes ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’ can go in opposite directions.

Leave your ego out of it and decide on the simplest way to get your clients results.

If they are getting results and improving in body composition, movement quality, strength and so on, then you’re doing okay and you’re just giving yourself more work by constantly changing things around.

Study Neurotyping

Whilst a full run-down of this topic is beyond the scope of this article, there are essentially three key personality types according to Cloninger’s Three Dimensional Personality Theory.

We now know how these relate to brain neurotransmitters and hormones which affects the type and volume of training that someone will react well to as well as a variety of other factors such as nutritional approach and coaching methods.

If someone is a ‘Novelty Seeker’ they are drawn to things like CrossFit and fighting sports because of the constant variety. 

If you train a Novelty Seeker, then it’s best to have areas of training that are repeated each week for clear progressive overload as well as more randomised circuits to satisfy their brains need for change.

Others, particularly ‘Harm Avoiders’ hate the constant change because they want to do the same things repeatedly to get good at them. They prefer to know what’s coming so they can mentally prepare and also practise the exercises until they feel totally sure of them.

Your clients neurotype plays an important part in deciding whether you should change up workouts regularly.

Stress status is everything

If someone turns up to training after a bad day at work during a period of arguing with their partner and finding out the dog just died, there is a good chance they will not react well to an intense prowler session or German Volume Training (10×10) squats.

In this case, it is often a very good idea to change the plan to one involving lower intensity, more rest, more breath work and lots of flexibility work to move the client’s nervous system back towards parasympathetic mode where they are more relaxed and not feeling like they are in a fire fight.

I like to have 4-5 ‘go to’ workouts for days like this such as mobility circuits, low intensity intervals to get a sweat on without stressing out, high rep Turkish Get Ups and boxing on the focus mitts.

As you get to a know a client you will learn what kind of workouts they enjoy and get their head back in Happy Land!

Using Heart Rate Variability training with your clients can take this up a notch as some people are harder to read! They can also be less honest about being tired and stressed because they feel like they are letting you or themselves down.

If someone is in the green zone on the HRV system go hard.

If they’re in the orange, reduce the volume of the workout and introduce some breathing work, boxing etc at the end to bring the stress hormones down and allow more recovery.

If they’re in the red, refer to your ‘go to’ workouts mentioned above.

Stop scrolling Instagram so much

On any given day you can see almost endless amounts of different workout styles on social media giving you FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

If you choose Workout A you can’t do Workout B. If you’re doing Workout B you can’t do Workout C.

If you have little confidence in your skills as a trainer, you will be encouraged to copy what you saw just because someone else had a great workout somewhere in a far away land!

This is not good coaching.

If this sounds like you, you need to revisit the basics of scientific fitness training and have confidence in your knowledge beyond the hype of social media and ‘survival’ workouts with very little scientific basis.

Don’t get bored of yourself before they do

I have raised this issue with Fit Pro’s who get bored of their own testimonials and cease to use them in marketing to people who have never seen them before…

…but the same applies to workout plans.

Just because YOU are bored of a particular method or it doesn’t fit your personal training goals right now, doesn’t mean it won’t deliver amazing results for your clients.

Some trainers act like a comedian on a 21 day tour who thinks he has to change the jokes every night, forgetting that the audience is new and will find the jokes just as funny as the audience the night before when they hear them for the first time.

Make your life much easier by designing programs that work because they’re based on science then adapt them for individual requirements, ability and so on.

80-90% should be set in stone with 10-20% altered due to circumstance NOT because you get bored or suffer a crisis of confidence. 

Remember that coaching is about your client, not you.