PERSPECTIVE: Are you a Personal Trainer or a Generic Trainer?

New genetics tech that allows completely personalised training plans means that we will soon view generic programming as not only outdated, but also negligent, believes Dr Cam McDonald.

Picture this: around 500 people did the same exercise routine for 20 weeks: three fully supervised stationary cycle sessions per week at 70% VO2 max. Some individuals got amazing results (30% increases in VO2), but some actually got worse(1) and finished less fit.

Now reflect on your own ‘weight loss’ training clients: on one hand you have those who are crushing it, and on the other are those ‘tough’ ones… You feel anxious when it comes to measuring their ‘progress’ after four weeks (maybe even pulling a little tighter on the tape), only for them to return a small increase in weight or measurements. Worst. Feeling. Ever. It has to be their fault, right? They’re not really committed and must be fibbing to you about what they’ve been doing and eating. The truth is, it is them – and it’s you too. Your program doesn’t match what their body needs, and it could actually be hurting them.

Most PTs believe they are personalising when they assess someone’s goals, exercise and injury history, and general lifestyle. The trainer responds to the client’s stated wish to lose weight with a prescription of daily HIIT workouts, coupled with information about higher protein diets and caffeine consumption. The problem with this is that they are treating the situation generically, i.e. ‘weight loss = HIIT training’, rather than with what the individual actually needs.

Every client is unique and will have:

  • specific genes and muscle physiology that respond to certain stimuli better than others
  • specific metabolic functions that treat food in a different way to others
  • a specific balance of neurochemicals and brain activity that makes them motivated in a certain way
  • specific times through the day when their body will respond better or worse to food, movement, sleep and work
  • a specific reason why and where their body holds fat, and releases fat in a way that’s healthy for them.

A person’s epigenetics – their unique gene expression – will largely predetermine these factors, and they differ dramatically from person to person. The technology is now available to trainers to determine a client’s best movement, food type and timing, optimal method of motivation, and perfect time and conditions for sleep, all based on their epigenetic profile.

If you don’t know what their specific muscle physiology is like in conjunction with their unique chronobiology (optimal timing of activities for their body), you won’t realise that early morning HIIT training for one client, Jess, causes an unwanted spike in stress hormones at that time of day, and, for her, dysregulates insulin and blood sugar levels, resulting in weight gain or weight stability. For another client, Max, his body is super tolerant of stress at this time, has no issue with insulin and responds with significant body composition change.

Same training, different body, different results. Treat the person, rather than the goal. It turns out that Jess’s body needs late afternoon strength training to maximally stimulate weight loss in her body (for a number of complex physiological reasons), but unless you are assessing this, you will be guessing.

The same goes for food. Long term high protein for Max leads to results, whereas for Jess it’s associated with bowel disease(2,3) and increased risk of type 2 diabetes, plus weight maintenance, or short term loss, and big regain.

The same goes for motivation. Max wants to be your ‘best’ client ever and do anything to get results. Jess just wants to hang out with you and chat throughout her session. These preferences are built into their genetics and their health type, and your success in motivating them will be based on your understanding of how to use their preferences to their advantage.

If you don’t know the person, the generic weight loss program you provide may actually contribute to them being injured, unsatisfied, or completely turned off training altogether. In five years, we will all be talking about how generic programming is actually quite negligent. As a career trainer, you don’t want to be on the late adopter end of this fitness industry shift, and the personalised revolution has already begun.


  1. Non-responders and supervised aerobic training - here
  2. Red meat intake and risk of diabetes - here
  3. Higher protein diets can worsen insulin resistance - here

Dr Cam McDonald blends his background as a dietitian and exercise physiologist with his longstanding personal interest in health, and his passion for understanding the latest research in genetics and environmental influence on health. He is CEO of ph360 Australia, which uses epigenetics to personalise fitness and lifestyle.