Certified Personal TrainerExercise ProgrammingFitness

Why do trainers have clients do odd looking exercises?

Ah yes, the “Why are they doing that?” remark. We’ve all seen it. Somewhere in “Training Land” a trainer is making a client do some movement that looks, well, rather ridiculous. It might even look so odd that the untrained eye or mind might wonder, “What the heck are they doing?” Please allow me to explain.

If we can agree that exercise is supposed to improve movement, then the purpose of any exercise should be to help the client move better and move more efficiently. Following the NASM OPT model, we know that proper progressions lead us from Stability to Strength to Power. But, if there is a weak link in the chain—and we ALL have weak links—improper programming can lead to injury and even a lack of trust. Thus, effective communication is a must for quality trainer/client relationships.

The best trainers are excellent teachers. Any muscle-bound dude in a tank top can shout instructions, but a more effective style is explaining what the exercise is trying to achieve. For example, there is an industry shift toward incorporating ground-based movements, especially during the warm-up. If a client breathes poorly, chances are they move poorly too. Starting them on the ground with diaphragmatic breathing–as odd as simple breathing exercises may appear to onlookers–is a great way to prep the body. After breathing, working contralateral patterns from a supine position (i.e., dead bug) can reinforce the body’s natural movement mechanics, while forcing the client’s brain to send the proper messages to the proper limbs at the proper times.

Which brings us back to teaching. As fitness professionals, our job is to educate clients about the “why” of what we’re doing. “We are relearning how to breathe to increase lung capacity and improve energy levels,” or “We are working on unilateral strength to improve coordination, correct imbalances, and make your brain focus longer.” Once we’ve established rapport with our clients, and we get a feel for what they can do well, we can add some flavor to their progressions. So, we might incorporate a bear crawl into a circuit.

As kids, we are bear-crawling and crab-walking phenoms. As grown-ups, we generally lose these skills. (Even activities like skipping seem a challenge for our grown-up abilities. To see this in action, ask adults to skip. Then ask them to skip backward. It’s somewhat hilarious to see how something so simple in our youth has become a drill of mind-bending coordination.) I incorporate these same exercises into my NINJA class warm-up. I explain that as NINJAS, we need to move well from every imaginable position. So, we train from the ground up with a combination of bridge and reaches, kick throughs, and multidirectional bear crawls/frogger/gorilla patterns. Does it look ridiculous? Probably. But, it also looks like the beginning of a judo or Brazilian jiujitsu martial arts class. Do I demonstrate the applicability? Yes. Do I teach the significance of moving better? Yes. Do my NINJAS struggle with it initially but improve with practice? Yes. Do they see how these animal-flow patterns improve their hip mobility, thus making their punching and kicking more powerful? Heck yeah!

Trainers should also be aware how their clients or classes look while doing these types of exercises. If my client is bear crawling, and their butt crack or belly is hanging out, I will shut the drill down and adjust to something else. Good coaches put their players in a position to succeed; and I want my clients thinking about their movements, not their butt cracks. It also improves our worth by showing the utmost care and respect for our clients.

Programming creativity is good, but specific exercises should have specific purposes, with the explanation following the NASM OPT model. If you communicate well, teach like a champion, and the client can execute your game plan—congrats, you have earned the right to get a bit ridiculous!

Train hard. Train smart. Train safe.

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The Author

Brian Kent, NASM-CPT, CES, PES

Brian Kent, NASM-CPT, CES, PES

Brian Kent, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, is a personal trainer, coach, Nike Trainer, and owner of BKSTRENGTH. Brian is a former two-sport Division I collegiate athlete and minor league baseball player, as well as a lifelong martial artist. Chicago-based, he has been training clients since 2003. bkstrength.com @bkstrength_chicago.