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Pushing your clients to the limit safely and responsibly – Part 2

Being fastidious about form may not be exciting for clients, but it will enable them to achieve greater gains while avoiding injury-induced downtime, says PT and performance coach Susy Natal.


    • You will be able to push your clients further in the long-run if you lay a firm foundation of education about how to execute movements properly and ensure they know that correct form will never stop being important
    • Ensure that clients understand how this can help with avoiding injury as well as getting more out of their training
    • When teaching a movement to a client, show them the movement, explain it to them, including what they should feel, and invite questions before they attempt it
    • Always provide feedback after the client first performs a movement and then have them repeat the movement, adding more detail to your feedback with each set
    • More involved techniques for learning include having the client teach you the movement, having the client take notes down about the steps involved and correct technique, and having the client take and submit films of movements for feedback regularly.

Following on from the first part of this feature (click here to read), this article expands upon the topic of how to keep safe, but maximise the results of your clients who want to push hard, have big goals or who struggle to recognise their limits.

Whereas the first article focused specifically on the management of pain, how to approach different forms of pain and what they might mean, here we look at the importance of teaching precise technique and how to ensure your client successfully learns all the information necessary to maximise their results and minimise injury.

Learn before the burn

A concern that many trainers have is that if they are not smashing their client every single session, the client will not feel like they are pushing hard enough to achieve good results and they will leave. This will be true for certain personality types, but it is actually quite unsafe for clients in the long-run if they are always thrown into new movements without first mastering the correct execution. There needs to be a strong educational foundation targeting precision of technique. The best results are obtained when consistency is maximised, and avoiding injury is paramount for this.

Manage your client’s expectations from the beginning, explaining that in the initial phases of training together, or whenever a new movement pattern is introduced, there will be some stopping and starting, and that the sessions will be a lot slower as you have a lot to teach them. If you back yourself from the start with an informative explanation about the importance of executing movements properly, most clients will understand this and will appreciate you taking the time to teach properly, providing them with the extra level of detail that not everyone will give, and helping them prevent injury.

Consistent standards

It is then important to not drop this standard over time: clients will learn to perform movements well if they are consistently guided and given feedback. A client that practices more good repetitions of a movement will, over time, perform a movement more and more precisely, and see greater results than those who execute without any correction. If a client understands that they are avoiding niggles and visits to the physiotherapist, and are establishing a strong base upon which to build greater results in the long-term, they will appreciate the need for a bit less excitement at times in favour of education.

Explain to your clients that not all movement is equal. Movement that includes the deliberate activation of target muscles, passes through a specific range and angle of motion, and involves a certain level of control, will elicit a much greater result. The squat is a great example of this that you can discuss with a client to illustrate the importance of correct form. Failure to make depth will result in less activation than there should be of several muscles. Allowing the knees to cave inwards may, over time, lead to knee pain. Dropping and relying on rebound may increase risk of injury, and in many will result in less muscular activation. When you explain this to a client, they will be able to see that rushing to perform exercises incorrectly will not only expose them to injury, but will also be a waste of their time due to the lesser results they will attain.

Watch, listen, learn

When teaching movements, you need to take into account that there are multiple styles of learning, and that hardly anybody will learn in just one way. We are multisensory and social beings, and all of this comes into play in the process of learning a new skill. When you teach a new movement, involve as many senses as possible, but not all at once. If you allow a client to absorb the same information repeatedly through several different means in sequence, you will maximise the detail that is absorbed.

When you first show a client a movement, try to have them just watch so that they can absorb the visual information of you performing several repetitions of the movement. Resist the temptation to speak immediately. You can then either start to speak after you continue performing more repetitions, or you can stop and then provide a verbal explanation from beginning to end of the movement.

When you explain a movement to a client, include information about what they should be feeling in different parts of their body – it is important to not forget tactile learning. This is then a good time to stop and check whether the client has any questions or need for clarification.

Your turn

Once you have answered any questions and can confirm that they are clear on what they are supposed to be doing, invite the client to try the movement. Note that when they are first practicing, you should never have a client try a new movement at a level of resistance that you predict to be their working weight, nor should you have them complete a large amount of repetitions. Many mistakes occur in early stages of learning, so you need to keep your client safe while they are still figuring it out. This is also the stage at which the greatest amount of tactile information is absorbed, so this is when you should check what they are feeling in different parts of their body: it may even be appropriate to move or prod them, as long as you have their permission to do so and warning them first.

Stop errors in their tracks

If you spot a systematic error, stop your client straight away: the mind is an association-making machine, and the more incorrect repetitions a client practices as a result of not being immediately corrected, the more likely they will be to continue performing these errors. Once they have completed a few repetitions, have them rest and provide them with verbal feedback on what you saw. Let them know which components they performed well so that they know what to continue doing, and then provide an explanation of what needs to change and how. Once the client has received feedback, have them practice the movement again to check which additional pieces of information have been absorbed. Doing this a few times over will typically result in the client being able to perform the movement competently.

Advanced learning

There are some more involved steps in the learning process that not all clients will be willing to do, but for athletes or advanced lifters, and those who have injuries or great difficulty mastering a movement, the following techniques can be very helpful.

Role reversal

Have a client who has just learnt a movement explain back to you how to perform it. Teaching a movement requires in-depth understanding about it, and so you will be able to spot where the missing pieces of information may be for that client. It will also help them to reconcile the information that they have just learnt.


Learning is also greatly affected by information retention: even those who understand in great detail when you are teaching, may struggle to retain a large proportion of this information for the weeks to follow. For this reason, you should always encourage your clients to write down notes when you are teaching them new movements. The act of writing the instructions down, coupled with the fact they then have a resource to refer to, will help them to continue executing good repetitions in their solo practice.


For more complex movements, such as heavy compounds, expand upon the note-taking by encouraging clients to film themselves and submit these films to you for feedback. This may add a few minutes of work to your week, but it will ensure that your client is not undoing all their hard work by practicing incorrectly in their own time.

Step by step

When teaching new movement patterns and exercises, you need to provide as much information as possible without overwhelming the client with details. This is one of the many reasons why teaching very complex exercises to beginners does not always work, and why simple movement patterns are best for those new to exercise.

Because more involved movements typically build upon components that have been previously learnt for more basic exercises, clients are starting with a base knowledge and are therefore able to focus on, and absorb, the details of advanced movements.

It may not seem as exciting to the client to take things slowly and pay so much attention to mastering good form when they would rather be getting stuck in and smashing their way through movements, but by doing so they will achieve greater strength, size or fitness gains over the longer term through both maximising the efficiency of every movement and minimising the plateaus and downtime induced by injuries resulting from incorrect execution.

Susy Natal

Susy is a Sydney-based performance coach, personal trainer, wellness writer and convention presenter. With a background in psychology and a focus on strength training for females, her integrated approach to training helps clients ranging from beginners to athletes achieve strength of body and mind. /

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