For a while, your client was making great progress toward their fitness goal (be it increasing muscle mass, losing fat, getting stronger, etc.). But suddenly, it all stops. What do you do?
Here’s what most personal trainers would do. Thinking that the program is losing effectiveness for their client, they’d start implementing changes: periodization, adjusting sets and reps, rest periods, and all the works. Now, doing so isn’t wrong per se.
It may not be the wisest first course of action.
As an educated, certified personal trainer, you should take a closer look at your client’s adherence to the prescribed workout and nutrition recommendations.
How, though? That’s what this article is for.
Here, we outline four things you should have your client track on their fitness journey so you get a clear picture of what they’re doing (or not doing) outside of your training sessions. This, in turn, uncovers crucial clues into why your client may not be progressing.
Workout Details (Weights, Sets, Reps, etc.)
If your client is straying away from your planned workout routine—and simply doing whichever exercise strikes their fancy in the gym (or, worse, skipping sessions altogether), it’s no surprise then that they do not see any progress, isn’t it?
To know if your client is cheating on your program, have them track their workout sessions. Make sure they log the following training variables in the process:
Do you know (for sure) if your client is warming up appropriately before their training sessions? A proper warm-up routine can significantly help to boost your client’s range of motion and performance during the actual exercise session.
Having your client note down their specific warm-up routine gives you insights on what else they could do to improve performance in the subsequent working sets.
Weights, Sets, and Reps
Let’s say your client’s goal is to put on muscle mass.
With the logged weights, sets, and reps, you’d be able to determine if they’re indeed hitting the optimal training volume (which you’ve already determined beforehand) needed through their training sessions.
It also gives you a clear idea of whether they’ve been diligently progressively overloading—or not.
Your client knows that it’s best to rest at least three minutes between sets for compound movements like the deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and squat.
But are they counting down the seconds—or simply going whenever they “feel ready”?
If it’s the latter, they’re hurting their performance and, in turn, the resulting muscle growth, thus highlighting the importance of getting your client to track their rest times.
If your client wants to lose weight, they’ll need to eat in a calorie deficit. That’s non-negotiable. But the problem here is, are they indeed eating in a calorie deficit, or do they simply think that they’re doing so?
It’s more likely than not the latter.
Considering that most people have a skewed perception of their actual calorie intake (i.e., severely underestimating the number of calories they’re eating), this isn’t surprising. At all.
Just so you know, research suggests that even dietitians are susceptible to underreporting their actual calorie intake!
That’s why you should encourage your client to track their food intake throughout the day. Have them log everything they put in their mouth—including that scoopful of peanut butter they sneak right before leaving for work in the morning.
This way, you’d be able to calculate their actual calorie intake. And that may tell you why your client is failing to progress on the weight loss front.
A quick note: Food tracking (or calorie tracking) isn’t necessarily suitable for all clients.
This applies especially to those with a history of eating disorders. Studies have found that the use of food tracking apps could be linked to disordered eating. In other words, getting a client to track their food intake may increase the likelihood of an eating disorder relapse.
So, use your professional judgment here.
It’s also important to note that your client doesn’t have to track their calories for the rest of their lives.
You could help frame calorie-counting as a short-term practice that helps educate them on the energy level differences between foods (i.e., some foods are more calorie-dense than others)—which, in turn, guides them toward making “smarter” food choices.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the energy your client burns through everything they do that’s unrelated to sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. Examples of NEAT include activities such as cooking, cleaning, fidgeting, walking, and even shopping.
It might not seem like it, but NEAT can have a substantial impact on your client’s metabolic rate and calorie expenditure.
Take this study, for instance.
It reported that the number of calories burned from NEAT could vary by up to 2,000 calories a day between two individuals of similar size. Read that again: 2,000 calories!
Unfortunately, for a client losing weight, NEAT levels tend to decrease upon starting a diet (scientists believe the body could be entering an “energy-conserving state”).
Even worse news: The reduction in energy burned through NEAT continues to increase at a quicker rate the longer your client stays in a calorie deficit.
This can eventually lead to a point where your client is burning so few calories through NEAT that they’d end up taking themselves out of a deficit. This could explain why their weight is staying constant instead of decreasing.
An easy way to boost your client’s metabolism and progress? Get them to track their daily steps. It’s a strong indicator of their NEAT levels.
In general, your client should be aiming anywhere between 7,000 to 9,000 steps daily. They should also be keeping up with this step-count throughout their dieting period.
Mood, Energy Levels, and Appetite
Could your client be failing to see progress because they’re overtraining?
For context: Overtraining describes the phenomenon where a client experiences a decrease in exercise performance because they’re working out too much—and too intensely—while failing to get in recovery.
Luckily, you can determine if your client is indeed overtraining by getting them to track the following:
- Mood: Overtraining is known to throw off the balance of many hormones in the body, resulting in various mood issues. If your client is logging feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety more frequently than they did before, the current program may be too intense for them.
- Energy levels: If a client is overtrained, they’d be extremely sore, tired, and depleted. The mix of extreme muscle soreness, coupled with hormone changes, can lead to disturbed sleep. So, if your client is practically dragging their feet to training sessions, you might want to consider taking down their program’s intensity a notch.
- Appetite: Overtrained individuals often report a loss of appetite. Researchers believe that this may be due to shifts in certain appetite-regulating hormones, including cortisol and ghrelin. Have your client track their appetite. If they’re frequently having trouble stomaching their food, they could indeed be overtraining.
It may also be worth having your client track their motivation levels.
Having insight into how their enthusiasm for working out changes according to your prescribed workout plan can help you better adjust the programming to suit their likes and dislikes—in turn, boosting long-term adherence and building your confidence as a personal trainer.
Remember: Don’t be too eager to change up the workout programming when your client seems to be stuck. Take a step back and assess the situation carefully. Any adjustments you make from here—if any are indeed necessary—will be much more meaningful.