Every fitness professional has a unique origin story. Some trainers are life-long athletes while others forged their way into the profession in the fire of their own transformation. Others became doctors, therapists and academics first, but quickly grew frustrated with “the system” and set out to change lives on their terms. Many simply took their passion for exercising, acquired a certification or two, gained employment at a local facility and began training sessions without much thought for the long game.
These origin stories are important, they are the Alpha to our career’s Omega, and a representation of a crux point in our lives when we decided that our passion is to improve others lives. These prologues to our journey provide the backstory to the movie that is our career, our “why” in a world preoccupied with “what”, “how”, and “when”.
But at some point, all trainers must evolve into coaches and commit to a career in fitness. There is no minute, no flashpoint, that signals the transition from wide-eyed and bushy-tailed personal trainer into the refined, confident, and capable coach. Instead, the accumulation of the early morning alarms, late-night programming blocks, and the thousands of sessions that made the years fly by that gradually transform the passionate fitness enthusiast into a capable coach.
A trainer’s journey is much like stone eroding in the path of the river’s rapids – time and pressure erode the imperfections and impurities until all that is left is strong, smooth, and worthy of admiration. Furthermore, no two stones in the riverbed, or coaches in the industry, will be identical after such prolonged exposure to the catalyzing forces. Still, there will be shared characteristics and qualities between them that represent the river they came from, no matter how far they are separated or kept from the water’s that made them.
For coaches in the fitness industry, the proverbial “grind” is our river rapid. So too are the network of fellow professionals we surround ourselves with, the quality of information we expose ourselves to, and the authenticity of relationships with our clients and athletes. Each of these elements, as well as a few others, define us in any room we enter, even when they look nothing like gyms.
Somewhere in the space where a few days as a trainer become a decade as a coach the following behaviors become normalized. For the purposes of this article, these ten things have been organized into 4 categories: Communication, Training Approach, Program Design, and Big Picture Thinking.
One of the most obvious differences between a trainer and a veteran coach is their ability communicate. A coach possesses dozens of options in their toolbox forged over years of experience that no trainer who is still learning how to swim will possess, yet.
ASK MORE QUESTIONS
In the beginning of a trainer’s career, it can feel like you have all the answers. After passing that certification exam, potentially holding a degree in a field, and looking incredible in your own bathroom mirror – we are qualified to train anyone and everyone with the money to afford us.
And so, we channel our charisma and charm and build our client book on the premise that we have all the answers, all the time. For some clients this works. They are hiring a motivator, someone to do the thinking, and creating an obligation to exercise by involving their wallet.
For most others, it needs to be more about them. They have an entire story to tell and this person they have hired seems to care little about hearing it. Instead, the trainer gives more science, more logic, and more directives.
A coach, however, understands that the best decisions are made when the most possible information is made available. Whether it is a dive into a person’s psychological and emotional relationship with food and exercise, or simply listening to the fact that the client hates pressing kettlebells because they hurt the back of their wrist – a coach listens.
More importantly, a coach, a true fitness professional, continues to ask questions. With more information comes more refined decision-making and most likely, better results. A trainer becomes a coach when they ask more (and better) questions, listen intently, and adjust their program accordingly.
Clear and Concise Cueing
All great fitness professionals have access to a library of tried-and-true coaching cues that they have developed over years of training. As though they could walk the halls of Hogwarts and find the perfect incantations and spells – a coach knows that are many cues available – but they need the right one, right now for the task at hand.
Take the deadlift for example, arguably the hardest fundamental training pattern to teach a client to perform correctly, especially with a barbell. Many trainers struggle to coach a client into a safe and effective deadlift because they have a limited array of cueing at their disposal.
Often, there will be a little “flex this” and “tighten that” in addition to a generic “push your hips back and reach down to the bar” cueing approach. These cues are not incorrect, but they are exclusively internal – meaning they rely on the client knowing their own body parts by name and feel. Asking someone to tighten their core and push their hips back sounds normal to a trainer but might sound like a foreign language to their client.
The trainer has good intentions with this approach, but good intentions often end up as pavement…
A coach, however, will approach this same deadlift with a cueing strategy that is focused on awfully specific actions in the external environment. Instead of “tighten your core” – a coach might say “take a big breath into your stomach and brace for a punch”.
Instead of “contract your adductors and glutes” – a coach might say “screw your feet down into the ground and crack a diamond in your ass cheeks as you pull yourself to the bar”.
For hips back, a lot of great coaches say things like, “close the car door with your butt” – a cue that immediately invokes the imagery of unloading groceries into the house.
In addition to these external cues, coaches also keep their in-set cueing short and sweet. Far too often a young trainer tries to say too much while their client is actively working through a training exercise. The client, caught between listening, processing, and doing, usually ends up in a worse position than they were before the cues began raining from the sky.
A coach will emphasize words of force production such as drive, push, pull, rip, and slam to invoke greater effort. Additionally, quick reminders of form that require few words such as “chest-up”, “spread the floor”, “push back”, and “stand tall” become useful tools to maximize repetition quality.
A trainer says a lot to prove to their client, and themselves, that they know what they are doing. They also say a lot because they have not yet refined their library of cues through years of experience in the trenches. Coaches emerge from thousands of sessions with an Almanac of cues that work, do not pollute their clients mind, and keep the positive flow of the session intact.
LESS ENCOURAGEMENT, MORE OWNERSHIP
It’s true; most clients pay for encouragement. They want the affirmations to flow like the Nile. They hired their trainer for expertise, motivation, and intelligent program, and the necessary emotional support to push beyond their previous breaking point.
And most trainers oblige by handing out fist bumps like books at an Oprah show. They learn to count and congratulate in the same breath too…
“one, good job” … “two, get it superstar”, “three, you are the best” …” ten, you are biblical and perfect”!
A bit monotonous you could say, but most trainers mean well and have good intentions, but the road to Hell still needs more pavement and trainers are not short on compliments.
A coach instead focuses less on creating small dopamine hits after every repetition and instead pours their energy into building their client’s self-efficacy over time. Instead of spending their words as though were “likes” on Instagram – a coach invests their time creating more constructive feedback that is realistic and fair.
See, complimenting someone on average effort, or worse, below-average effort creates a neurological connection in their brain that says, “they still love me even if I know I’m dogging it”.
It would be like giving your dog a treat every time they shit on your couch instead of going outside. Sure, the dog gets a treat and likes you more…but you still have a turd on your throw pillow, and they think that’s totally fine.
Instead, coaches simply withhold applause (and probably don’t count out loud) until the very end of a challenging set, the accomplishment of a personal record, or the client follows through on the homework given to them for between session. Coaches worry less about providing Dopamine hits in the interim and instead focus on building a client’s ownership of their program and their lives.
A trainer wants their clients to like them and feel safe and accepted.
A coach wants their clients to like themselves, feel safe and accepted, and feel un-fuckingstoppable.
Another defining difference between a trainer and a seasoned fitness professional, or coach, is their approach to training. Of course, there are always outliers, but by-in-large most veteran coaches observe the following beliefs:
DEATH TO DOGMA
One of the things that we take pride on in the Pain-Free Performance Specialist certification is that declare on day 1, hour 1, that we are non-dogmatic. We are not in the business of teaching anyone in the world that there is only one correct way to do something. Instead, we focus upon developing systems that stand the test of time and the width of a trainer’s client book – longitudinal and latitudinal measures of effectiveness.
A coach embraces this same philosophy. In fact, most seasoned professionals have been exposed to everything one could be dogmatic about in their career. They have worked with, and potentially been certified in, kettlebells, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, bodyweight movement practices, mobility and corrective modalities, and other random instruments and toys found in a gym.
They love all that shit. But they know it has a time and place in a program. More importantly they know that no one approach works for every client. This is especially true when looking at popular diets.
Trainers, unfortunately, are often easy to sway because the influence of those perceived to be greater than them still holds tremendous weight in their decision making. A trainer might attend a weekend certification and buy whole-heartedly into every word of the instructor to the point that it’s as if they have amnesia of everything they thought before.
This is especially true for trainers who begin to learn about corrective modalities, foam rolling, and mobility methods. Far too many clients have come in expecting to bench on a Tuesday evening and were instead met with an entire body foam rolling session with a new tool that looks ripped from an Adam and Eve catalogue.
Thankfully, with time and exposure to other valid methods every trainer can overcome dogmatic thinking and elevate to a whole new level of their career – becoming a coach.
LIFE IS NOT LINEAR
When you study periodization in a textbook it seems simple. If you honor progressive overload theory and the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands), then you are sure to get some level of super-compensation and positive adaptation in your client.
Within six weeks you can expect neurological adaptations, ten-weeks for musculoskeletal changes to begin, and roughly twelve-weeks for significant shifts in body composition.
For a trainer, they just must design the right workouts, recommend the right foods, and the science will handle the rest. It’s a pretty sweet set up, really. Prescribe and execute the stimuli and all your clients will be getting results so fast, and so pronounced, that they’ll be painting a mural of you within a year.
And yet, it almost never turns out that way. Why?
Because people have lives and their lives are not linear. They travel, get sick and feel demotivated. Sometimes they can’t wait to show up to the gym and train with you. Other times they can’t wait to make a bottle of wine disappear into their body while binging watching Tiger King.
And if a person’s life isn’t linear, then their results sure as hell won’t be.
Life is a bit more undulating, to use a periodization term, and coaches know this. But unlike the periodization term – life’s undulations can’t all be planned. If 2020 has taught the industry anything, then it is “expect the unexpected”.
Coaches design programs in pencil and write the results in pen.
CLIENT’S HAVE OTHER FUCKS TO GIVE
Put simply, client’s have lives chock full of things that they care about that rank above their training. Unfortunately, not everyone on Earth cares about fitness the same way we the professionals do. Maybe America would not have 50% of it’s country at the obesity line if more people gave more fucks about their training, nutrition and sleep, but that’s another conversation for another time.
To the point of this article, client’s have lives rich with things that matter to them and chances are training is only a small slice of that exceptionally large pizza pie. They have their own careers, their families, the activities of their children, their favorite sports teams, their friendships and companions, and the deep contemplation about what happened in the Soprano’s final episode when the screen went black.
And there is us, and training, and biceps veins or thigh gaps.
For trainers, this is downright befuddling. How can their clients possibly not fall asleep dreaming about their egg-white and spinach nibble in the morning? How can they not get excited at the thought of skipping a night out with friends for a long run in the morning?
Trainers struggle to understand that exercise and nutrition is just a part of their client’s life and not the whole of it. Coaches, however, embrace that their clients are only going to give them what they are willing to give and that will be enough, for now. Over time, the coach will deliver results, improve the client’s self-efficacy and commitment to health, and at that time more can be addressed.
Obviously, there are many clients and individuals who have their training and fitness ranked much higher on their priority list, but unfortunately for a fitness professional, most of the time those individuals aren’t hiring anyone to train them. And even if they do – they are going to be looking for that coach who is a bit more seasoned and prepared to handle a more intense training protocol.
Any veteran fitness professional should be able to look back at their programs from their trainer years and exclaim, “woof” as though they just found a picture of Buzz’s girlfriend in Home Alone. With years of experience, education, and many repetitions of trial and error, a coach’s programs are treasured pieces of art and science – to be protected in the Smithsonian once retirement occurs. Trainers often miss the boat with program design though, instead focusing on workout design in a session-by-session manner.
BUILD BACKWARDS. WORK FORWARDS.
Coaches have learned through years of experience that the best plans start at the end. Much like creating a route in your GPS – you need a starting location and a destination to make it work. For a veteran coach, knowing the end allows for them to work backwards over a series of micro and mesocycles to get to their present day. This approach might require at least a year of projection or only a few months – it all depends on the client’s wants, needs and abilities.
Once the program is designed, regardless of length, it becomes time to get to work. A coach starts with the first workout of the first microcycle and embarks upon a journey towards their client’s goals. Written in pencil, things will change, exercises will adapt, and loads will progress. In time, the next microcycle becomes more clear and less abstract and theoretical as the current results initiate its launch. Going forward in time, mesocycles are completed and progress is made towards the big goal.
Coach’s know that they must start at the end and design the road all the back to where they and their client currently stand. These pencil strokes providing an obvious, but malleable path between to two points. With work the pencil will become pen, the proverbial concrete that locks in the road forever.
To the contrary, many trainers will engage in the workout-by-workout approach. If a client wants to lose weight, then they’ll put together a hard program on Monday that moves them towards their goals. Then, on Wednesday, they will design another program for the day that considers the soreness of Monday but is largely independent of that workout. This process continues until the client reaches their goals, or most likely, does not.
Trainers mean well and are simply trying to match a need with a stimulus for change. Yet, without a structured plan there is no cohesiveness between workouts and no clear through-line for progress.
A coach understands that all great stories have clear plot lines that connect the beginning and the end.
EXECUTE THE PROGRAM
Coaches know that clients want to do something different every session. They realize that another workout with goblet squats to a box isn’t the most exhilarating experience for the person paying them money. In fact, it is not the most fun thing for them either – they’ve been coaching goblet squats to a box since Tik Tok was a song and not an app.
And still, they understand the importance of redundancy and progressive overload. They spent hours writing the program and they are going to be damn sure to see it through, especially because they know it will work with enough repetition. Coaches find other ways to add flare and excitement to program. Switching up the accessory work, adding juicy finishers to a client’s favorite muscles, or maybe switching the location that the training session takes place. What doesn’t’ change is the core tenants of the program.
Trainers will often bend to the wants of their clients. Afraid to lose business because they are redundant (AKA consistent) a trainer will consistently change their program to make their clients happy. Without frequency and repetition many exercises will not progress, and the client won’t see results.
What begins as a way of making the client happy in the moment often ends with the client being unhappy in a few months. Coach’s trust their core programming efforts and execute them fearlessly knowing that their clients will enjoy the occasional flares when appropriate, but will love them for the results that they paid for.
BIG PICTURE THINKING
The final layer that separates a coach from a trainer is their ability to see beyond their own shoes. For many trainers, is their clients in their book doing their programs. Coaches see the entire facility, the reality that clients often have multiple trainers, and that there are hundreds of thousands of fitness professionals working at the same time daily around the world. This big picture thinking is what opens doors for coaches that many trainers are aspiring for.
ALWAYS WATER THE GARDEN
In the beginning, many trainers think they have “THE” secret to weight loss, or muscle-building. They often market themselves as the expert on a specific topic simply because they look a certain way or compete in a discipline. When it comes to building their business and acquiring clients, this approach is fine, and often necessary to stand out.
Yet, this approach often has a downside when it pertains to other fitness professionals. Instead of sharing what they know with their peers to make everyone better, together, the trainer chooses to hoard what they know, and worse, assume that they can’t learn from anyone else.
A trainer may even say something like “I’m the best” when in the right social circle, even though their actions and demeanor say it every time they hit the gym floor. To be clear, this isn’t confidence or self-efficacy. Instead, it is insecurity hidden underneath a declaration because the trainer refuses to indulge in the act of teaching, or learning from, other trainers.
Coaches understand that all boats rise in response to a tide and will actively work to water the garden around them. Coaches realize that they weren’t born with magic answers and that they in fact learned from others along their way. Coaches know that everything that they practice and preach is a combination of learned information, personal beliefs and interpretations and intellectual curiosities.
Most importantly, a coach knows that they do not know everything and will remain open to learning to from anyone, anytime, regardless of their experience. In fact, many of the best coaches are eager to learn from the next generation of trainers because with every new influx of talent comes a wave of energy and optimism that refreshes the veteran.
Coaches know that knowledge is only a commodity if it is shared with the world. They could write it, present it, or simply share it over coffee. What matters is that they shared it.
ENGAGE WITH DIGNITY
The fitness industry is a rapidly growing multi-billion-dollar experience that only now is hitting its first major speed bump because of the COVID pandemic. For roughly 40 years the industry has exponentially expanded in every direction, which now includes social media.
Throughout the growth of social media platforms many trainers have taken to their Instagram and Tik Toks to build a wealth of followers who adore them for their looks and inspiration posts. They do so to also acquire leads and potentially customers so that they can continue to flourish in their business.
Coaches also do the same exact thing.
Except they tend to retain their dignity.
It isn’t about being half naked and in sexual poses. It isn’t’ about CBD lotion or some tanning oil that helps you pass your SATs and provides nutrients to your pinky toe. It is never about dogmatic bullshit, trendy buzzwords, or delivering incorrect, but shock-value, information in exchange for likes.
Coaches build their social media, their websites, and their brands with dignity. They focus on how they can help more people live better lives while speaking truth and doing their best to keep their personal interests out of it. This is hard, of course, because we can only remove ourselves from our content so much. Yet, the best figure it out.
Trainers unfortunately find themselves marketing…. themselves. It doesn’t seem to be about their clients, or the growth of the human experience. Instead, it is cheesy captions and good lighting. They can’t see how their desire to grow their following exceeds their apparent desire to help others.
YOU CAN BECOME A COACH
This is not a condemnation of trainers and those new to our industry. One could even argue that coach and trainer are interchangeable titles that hold no value beyond identifying that you work to “develop” something, or someone, else.
Remember this definition:
Training is the act of imparting upon another without feedback about the emotional and psychological state of the client. See: Dog Trainer, Dolphin Trainer
Coaching is the act of co-designing a plan to create multiple moments of success while considering the emotional and psychological repercussions of your work.