As a professional personal trainer, especially when starting out, you will most often find yourself approached by potential clients that have never embarked on any kind of serious fitness journey. Many will have never touched a barbell, dumbbell or resistance machine, nor have the slightest clue where to begin. You may also encounter those who have some experience with exercise and dieting but have seen little to no measurable results. Additionally, now that we are firmly set in the age of Google, gyms are filled with confused individuals that are running in circles because of all of the conflicting information one will find online.
It is your job to clue in the clueless, help the helpless and shine the light on the confused.
In my 30+ years in the “game” I have answered more questions for clients (and potential clients) than I can possibly wrap my head around. However, certain queries seem to be more common -and I will bet that any fitness pro reading this will eventually hear all of the same questions I have, in some form or another.
With that said, it is important that you have a clear and concise answer to any question posed to you when it comes to the subject of exercise, fitness and nutrition. Remember, your clients look to you as the professional. They look to you to not only gain an understanding of the process, but for reassurance that they are in good hands. And this is precisely why I wrote this piece – to help you answer some of the most commonly asked questions of a personal trainer.
Common Personal Trainers QUESTIONs from Clients
Q. I don’t know how to properly perform any of the exercises or how to use the machines. How do I even know where to start?
A. As a complete beginner the gym can certainly be an intimidating place. This is why I suggest hiring a personal trainer for a good 8-10 sessions (at least) so that you can learn what muscle group(s) each piece of equipment works, as well as proper exercise technique, breathing patterns and rep cadence. A good trainer will also help you develop a workout program that is suited to your present level of fitness, particular goals, and that addresses any injuries or limitations that you may have.
Q. My main goal is to lose weight. What is the best course of action for someone like me?
A. When it comes to losing weight you need a combination of weight or resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. Many people make the error of performing too much cardio and neglecting weightlifting, thinking that only treadmills, stationary bikes and stair masters are responsible for burning fat – but this is far from true. While “cardio” will certainly help you to burn extra calories, it is weight training that is going to stimulate the metabolism (so that you become a fat burning machine), change the “composition” of your body, and bring about the shape and contours you desire. I suggest at least 3-4 days per week lifting weights and 4-5 of performing cardio – preferably first thing in the morning or right after resistance training.
Q. My main goal is to build muscle mass and get much stronger. What kind of workouts can help with that?
A. For building strength and muscle you will need a well-designed weight training program that primarily utilizes free weights and compound (multi-joint) exercises. A 4-day per week program works quite well for most, using a 2 on, 1 off, 2 on, 2 off pattern. This allows you to hit each muscle group hard once per week, while providing you three days for rest and recovery (which is when actual growth takes place). I suggest starting with about four exercises for three sets each for major muscles like back, quads, hamstrings chest and shoulders. For smaller groups like biceps, triceps, traps, abs, forearms and calves you will do well with just three movements for 2-3 sets each. Perform 1-3 warmup sets before each exercise (more are needed earlier in the workout), and then work sets of about 13-15, 10-12 and 7-9 reps.
Q. How many days per week do I need to work out?
A. How often you need to work out depends on your fitness level, goals, and time limitations. The loftier the goal, the more time you will have to spend going after it. That said, if you have a very demanding job, a family, and/or other important personal responsibilities, you may not be able to spend hours per week working out, and thus will need to be patient when it comes to reaching your goal. To make decent progress you will certainly need to hit the gym at least 3 days per week for an hour at a time. However, as time passes, you will begin to require more time working out in order to see continued progress. I suggest starting out with three gym sessions per week and adding a bit to your program every month or so.
Q. How much time should I spend in the gym?
A. Like the previous question, this again depends on how fit you currently are, what goals you have set for yourself and how much time you have to devote to working out. For some people it may be best to schedule three hour-long workouts per week, while others may find it more convenient and beneficial to train 5-6 days per week - but for only 30 minutes. In other words, it is best to think about how many total hours per week you will spend in the gym, and then to decide how best to spread it out. Another important point to consider is quality of time and not just quantity. Someone who is very dedicated and focused to his/her training can often get far more accomplished in just 30 minutes than one who is there for an hour, but constantly distracted by his/her phone, chatting with others, and/or watching rather than doing.
Q. How much rest should I take between sets? And how much rest is needed between workouts?
A. Certain exercises are far more demanding on the body than others, and thus require more rest between sets. For example, a set of 15 reps of BB Squats will not only tax the thighs, glutes, and lower back, but will also have you breathing like a freight train. You may find that you need a good 3-4 minutes before you are ready to get to the next set. On the other hand, performing 15 DB Side Laterals may only require 45-60 seconds of recovery time. Another point to consider is what your primarily goal is, and how weight training is best utilized to reach it. Someone who is in the gym to build massive size and power will want to rest for longer periods in between sets so as to be able to lift maximum weight for maximum reps. When one is looking to burn body fat and perhaps increase endurance, it is best to keep heart rate elevated and move rather quickly from set to set, even if weights utilized are lighter. As for time in between workouts, you may find that as a beginner, that a full day of rest is needed in between weight training sessions. However, as you progress and become more accustomed to the rigors of training, it is possible to lift for several straight days without a break - just as long as you never work the same muscles two days in a row. Cardio, however, can be performed daily.
Q. What about supplements? Should I be using any?
A. In the beginning of your health and fitness journey, the main focus should be on implementing an intelligent/efficient workout regimen and a healthy/balanced nutrition program. Anyone who tells you to immediately jump on all sorts of sports supplements is either misinformed or trying to make a buck. After spending 8-12 solid weeks in the gym, working hard and consistently, while carefully following a sound diet, it is then appropriate to think about adding some basic, scientifically validated supplements into the mix.
Q. I read that there is some kind of 30-60 minute “window” after training when it comes to getting your meal in. Is this true? If so, why?
A. It is actually true that within the first hour after working out intensely with weights, the body is in a special metabolic state whereby protein and carbohydrates will be more rigorously partitioned toward muscles, and away from fat cells. This is because during this period, insulin sensitivity is extremely high, which means amino acids and carbs will very readily be absorbed, assimilated and stored directly into damaged muscle cells. This allows for repair, recovery and recuperation to start immediately, and over time will result in far better results than eating your post workout meal outside of this anabolic window.
Q. What should my post workout meal consist of?
A. Your body will require both protein and carbohydrates after lifting weights. The protein will help to repair and rebuild damaged muscle cells, while the carbs will restore muscle glycogen (its main energy source). Try to consume somewhere between 20-40 grams of a low-fat protein and 40-80 grams of a healthy carbohydrate within 30-60 minutes after each workout. A good example would be egg whites, turkey or fish along with rice, potatoes or oatmeal.
Q. As you can see, I am severely out of shape and have never really exercised. Are there any limitations on what I should be doing?
A. To be honest, while it is likely safe for you to begin a light workout program, preferably under the care of an experienced and educated personal trainer, it would be best for you to consult with your physician before even grasping your first dumbbell. Getting the green light from your doc will give you peace of mind and keep you from needlessly causing yourself harm, illness or injury, especially when you are finally taking steps to improve your health and wellness.
Q. I would like to be active outside the gym as much as possible. Are there any activities you recommend that could be a part of my overall fitness routine?
A. Absolutely, yes. Outside activities are especially great when it comes to getting in your cardiovascular training, as it is far more enjoyable to hike, dance, bike, run stairs or swim than to walk on a treadmill for every session.
Q. How do I know for sure my workouts are yielding positive results?
A. Carefully tracking your progress is extremely important when embarking on any kind of physical fitness program. It is essential to meet with your coach/trainer every 2-4 weeks to have your weight, body fat and complete measurements taken. You can take it a step further by having regular blood tests via your primary physician if you are trying to regulate general health measures like total cholesterol, ratio of LDL to HDL, triglycerides, hormonal balance and blood pressure. Oddly enough, a very good indicator of progress is by feeling how your clothes fit. Obviously if you are looking to get bigger and more muscular, you know you are headed in the right direction if your shirts are fitting tighter in the arms, chest, and through the back. The scale is not always a tell-tale sign of whether your program is yielding results, since it is very possible for women, as an example, to drop several sizes without losing a single pound! Always remember that muscle takes up far less space than fat.
Q. In my experience, when I start working out I do well for about 4-5 week and then seem to hit a wall. What should I do when I reach a progress plateau?
A. When stagnation sets in it is time to look carefully at your overall program and decide what changes need to be made in order to kickstart your fitness progress once again. Sometimes it is a case of simply adding in more work and/or tweaking the diet by adding or subtracting calories (depending on the goal). Other times you have to ask yourself if you are truly giving it 100% every day in the gym. Simply showing up is not going to get the job done – you need to focus, concentrate and give your all to every set and rep. Another possibility is that your body and mind have adapted to the exercises and types of cardio you have been doing and need a change. Try changing some of your weight training movements, switching to different cardio machines, using more or less resistance, or altering rest between sets.
Q. I’m really struggling and feel like I want to give up. How can I keep myself on track when I begin feeling this way?
A. This may be the toughest question of all to answer. The desire and will to keep pushing yourself day after day must come from within. While some close to you may lend their support (hopefully), it is still you that must take the journey. You are the one who has to skip the cheat meals, pass on the booze, pump the weights and sweat on the treadmill, bike and stepper. But just like anything in life, few things that are truly worth having come easy. And honestly, nothing is more important than your health. That said, a few suggestions I have that may help are: 1) See if you can find a friend, family member, or even another gym goer to work out with you. It’s can be fun and more motivating to have a partner. 2) Watch inspirational videos or movies that can help psyche you up to go to the gym. 3) Try wearing headphones when working out with your favorite music blaring in your ears and driving you forward 4) Contemplate how you will feel about quitting. Think about looking back months from now, knowing what you might have accomplished had you decided to stick with it.