I’ve always wanted to write an article on this specific topic, even though there are more iterations out there of this than perhaps any other fitness article. Most of the time, the topic is presented as “# of Reasons Why a Trainer Sucks!” or something along those lines. I’d like to present just a slightly different approach, while addressing many of the same key points, and highlighting them in a different light. Here are some key elements (in no particular order) that a great trainer should possess. I believe that actions speak louder than words, and trainers who demonstrate these characteristics are typically the cream of the crop.

1. They make sure to perform a comprehensive initial assessment/consultation.

While most decent trainers espouse putting their new clients through an assessment before they get started, very seldom do trainers actually do a comprehensive enough of an assessment to determine anything useful in regards to the client’s training program. Just doing the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is not enough. Just sitting down and talking about injury history is not enough. Just a basic fitness assessment is not enough. A qualified trainer should assess a myriad of things during your first session, including the following:

 - Getting a thorough list of major injuries, past traumas (physical AND emotional), current physical limitations, diseases or other medical conditions, and any medications you are currently taking. 

 - Asking lifestyle questions regarding things like work schedule, sleep habits, nutritional struggles, support (or lack thereof)  from family and friends, etc.

 - Putting the client through a comprehensive movement screen to help identify movement patterns that the client needs to have retooled.

 - Identifying specific joints lacking adequate mobility or stability for proper execution of basic movements.

 - Identifying excess tension and poor tissue quality in specific areas of the body.

Just identifying these simple things is usually far more than most trainers do with new clients. If you don’t know that your client is taking beta-blockers and has a history of high blood pressure, how are supposed to know what type or intensity of cardio is safe for them to handle? If you don’t know that your client broke their collar bone 18 years ago in a car accident, how are you supposed to intelligently coach the progressions of an overhead press? If you don’t know whether or not your client can even bend over and touch their toes, how do you know which deadlifting variation is appropriate for them to start out with? You get the point.

2. They design comprehensive programs designed to address your current weaknesses and potential future roadblocks or injury risks, as well as tailoring it to your specific training goals.

It is important for a coach to take into account everything they learn during their assessment when designing a training program for a client. If every time a client comes in to see his trainer, and the entire goal for the day is to get the client to feel the burn, work up a good sweat, and “keep the body guessing,” the trainer is missing the boat entirely. The purpose of a good training program is to create a systematic plan for reaching a specific goal, whether it be short term or long term. A good coach makes sure that every exercise, set and reps scheme, order of exercises, and corrective drills in the program have a specific purpose. 

A well thought out program will include drills used to improve mobility and stability where needed, build strength and coordination of larger-scale movement patterns that are deficient, and then use accessory work and different variations of exercises to achieve the client’s specific goals, whether it be weight loss, hypertrophy, strength, sport performance, or just general health.

It is the responsibility of a good coach to make sure that the training program is addressing both the needs and wants of the client. Good programs ensure that the trainee continues to progress and build upon each newly acquired skill and ability. As an example, if a client can’t deadlift properly without movement deficiency or pain, it should be the trainer’s goal to teach how to do a perfect hip hinge and brace the core properly and then build up from there.

3. They record everything during each session.

Piggybacking on number 2, a good coach should be recording how you are feeling each day prior to the training session, all of the sets and reps being performed for each exercise, how much weight is being used for each set, and any difficulties the client had with a given exercise and the subsequent modifications made that day. 

A good coach wants to make sure that his clients are feeling good prior to each session, and account for outside factors in a client’s personal life that may affect how well he can perform that day. A good coach wants to also make sure that his clients are progressing they way they should be according to the program. If not, perhaps some modifications should be made to the program, such as changing the amount of weight used on an exercise, or the amount of exercises used in a training session. 

By recording everything that happens each session, as well as how the client is feeling prior and after the session, a trainer can modify things as needed to ensure that his client is on the right track to reach his goals and stay safe over the long-term. As a coach, if you aren’t writing things down, you are simply just guessing and taking inappropriate stabs in the dark when it comes to looking out for you clients’ best interests.

It’s as easy as bringing a pad and pen or inputting the data into a spreadsheet on your phone or tablet. I personally use an iPad and spreadsheets that I share with clients so that they are aware of what we are doing on a regular basis. It also holds them accountable to me as their coach, and it holds me accountable to them to make sure we are both invested in them.

4. They spend ample time actually coaching during training sessions.

A great coach should be paying close attention to how his clients are performing their exercises, particularly those that are corrective in nature or perhaps highly technical exercises. The execution of exercises is perhaps the single most important factor when it comes to training, even more so than which exercises are chosen for a program or how often they are performed each week.

I’ve seen my fair share of coaches who are simply rep-counters or conversationalists with their clients, and to me that is inexcusable. The objective of a great trainer should be to get his clients to fully understand and execute as well as possible the exercises they are performing during a given training session. This means that the trainer actually has to spend ample time during the session with hands-on instruction, demonstrations, verbal cueing, etc. to get their client to perform the exercise as well as possible. If a client can’t for the life of him do an exercise well enough, this also means that the trainer needs to be able to make adjustments on the fly.

The entire point of in-session coaching is help clients learn how to execute the drills and exercises correctly. A great coach is also a great educator. Coaches should make it a priority to educate their clients, and clients should make it a priority to learn as much as possible from their clients.

5. They can properly demonstrate the exercises they are trying to teach the client. 

You’d be surprised how many trainers are out there who try and coach movements that they themselves can’t even do properly. If they can’t do it at a masterful level, then they have no business teaching it. You can’t properly teach something you can’t even do yourself. You need to have gone through the process of learning it, honing it, and mastering it to truly appreciate how to coach it correctly. Learning a laundry list of verbal cues, or even having a thorough theoretical understanding of an exercise is simply not a replacement for actually knowing what it feels like to do the exercise.

I personally make it a point to only add new exercises into my arsenal once I myself have spent enough time learning it, practicing it, assessing whether or not it is an exercise I feel has good value for a specific objective. Only then will I opt to use an exercise with a client. To do otherwise is irresponsible on the trainer’s part. A good coach knows how to properly execute the movements he teaches, and can relate his experience to his clients.

Stay tuned for Part 2!