6 Things Every Personal Trainer Should Consider When Designing Fitness Programs

6 Things Every Personal Trainer Should Consider When Designing Fitness Programs

Your programming should start and end with one thing:

Your client’s goal.


Because, above all else, your job as a personal trainer is to deliver results.

Work to understand what your client really wants — the “why” behind the weight loss or muscle gain.

Then find out why they don’t have it yet — why they’re coming to you instead of trying to do it on their own.

Then, develop a strategy that combines those things, along with their goals and needs, into an effective program.

Doing this successfully is both an art and a science. You must be a thoughtful coach and a programming expert.

We’ve covered best coaching practices in other places, so let’s talk about the most high-impact programming tactics to guarantee results.


1. Perform an Assessment

Some form of standardized assessment is essential for tracking progress and planning what to do next.

Movement screens like the FMS are great, but also utilize simpler, more client-friendly methods:

  • Weight
  • Body composition
  • Tape measurements
  • Performance markers in various exercises

The more data points you collect, the clearer your client’s needs become, and the clearer the results of the assessment will be to the client.

Constant attention to the goal and continual assessment will keep you (and your client) on the right track.


2. Set a Timeline

Now that we have a clear idea of where we are and where we want to go, consider the timeline.

Again, this is (mostly) dependent on the client’s goals.

Nobody wants results slower than necessary, but respect the nature of physiology and behavior change. Be clear about how long changes in body composition or strength are likely to take.

A good idea to keep both you and your client on track is to break large goals into smaller ones —  creating a “staircase” of success and momentum.

For example, if a client wants to lose 20lbs, set a goal of 3lbs lost in a timeframe that both you and the client agree on.

Use small goals like this to stair-step your way to the ultimate goal.


3. Plan for Periodization

For strength and hypertrophy gains, periodization simply means changing the types of exercises, frequency, and weight lifted to ensure the body is exposed to more work over time.

While there are hundreds of books written on the subject of periodization, most clients won’t require any advanced strategies for the first year or so of training.

Periodization tactics can also be applied to nutrition. As a client moves closer toward his or her body composition and performance goals, nutritional strategy must change as well.

The periodization strategy must be matched to the athlete, the goal, the timeline, and many other factors. This is a skill that takes years to master.


4. Use Corrective Exercises Where Necessary

Most clients will have some movement “issues”.

Whether issues of tightness, weakness, imbalance, or range of motion, your job is to work with and around these to the best of your ability to produce safe results.

Corrective exercise systems have grown in popularity in recent years. It’s important to understand where your responsibilities as a trainer end and where a doctor or physical therapist begins  (usually with pain).

Unfortunately, many trainers are guilty of either over-using corrective exercises to the point of wasting valuable training time or not considering correctives at all.

Both disrespect the client.

Of course, your assessments should identify most of these movement issues before they negatively affect the training program.

Nobody will ever have “perfect” movement patterns, so don’t assume this is the goal. Instead, work to ensure your client stays out of pain and is ready to get the most out of your program.


5. Increase Work Capacity

Generally speaking, the first priority in working with a beginner client is to increase work capacity.

Sometimes referred to as general physical preparedness, this includes custom workout plans that improve total body strength, coordination, and endurance.

True to the name, we are increasing the body’s capacity to handle more and more work.

How many times have you seen a new client get light-headed or sick during a workout?

This is simply because the body cannot handle so much new stimulus at once.

Dedicating time to work capacity mitigates these issues and also helps to make future training blocks more effective.

Even if a client has the brute strength to squat heavy weights, he may not have the fitness required for submaximal sets at 4-8 reps, ultimately limiting his ability to advance in maximal strength.

Increased work capacity will help the attainment of any goal —  from marathons to powerlifting, fat loss to muscle gain.


6. Use Micro- and Macrocycles

The entire premise of programming is to break training into phases with specific, interdependent goals.

Microcycles are periods of training lasting between a couple weeks to 3-6 months.

One or two goals are in high-focus, and training generally follows a predetermined volume and intensity increase.

Macrocycles are comprised of a series of microcycles, usually over a period of 6-12 months.

At the end of a macrocycle, the client should have completed the main training goal — all the weight lost, the strength gained, etc.

Macrocycles will change and evolve with the life of the client. Your guidance as a trainer may be necessary for some, but not all of these cycles.


If a client’s goals change to the point where you know they would be better served by another professional, tell them so.

The best trainer works himself out of a job.

By the same token, the more success a client enjoys as a result of your coaching relationship, the more likely you are to be hired for the next phase of training.

Again, programming is both an art and a skill.

Master it, and your programming becomes another secret weapon in retaining clients and growing your fitness business.

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Zack Henderson is a strength coach in Nashville, TN and holds Strong First certifications in kettlebell, barbell, and bodyweight training. Zack's students include nationally ranked powerlifters, obstacle course racers, and everyday strength enthusiasts. When not lifting or coaching, he's probably playing guitar.

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