The tortoise approach to training overweight clients

Gloria Cabrera reminds us that when it comes to training overweight clients, slow and steady wins the race.

Picture this: a new client arrives on the gym floor for their first personal training session. They are overweight and self-conscious. They look around and take particular notice of the slim and trim regulars. They feel intimidated and a little scared, worried that they will be judged. They aren’t keen on the idea of sweating or the other discomfort they associate with exercise. Despite these misgivings, however, they have got this far, having judged their desired outcome to be worth the challenge of achieving it. Your role is to help them get there, and this requires not only the right training, but also the right approach so that they don’t get scared off.

It’s up to you to make their experience enjoyable (yet still effective) so that they keep coming back. The combination of seeing results and having a good time can be a heady one.

There are many things to consider when starting new weight loss clients on a program, but as an overarching principle one thing is for sure: slow and steady wins the race.

Let’s take a look at some of the key considerations:

Screening

It’s essential to conduct exercise pre-screening with any new client, but for overweight clients the importance is heightened due to increased likelihood of them having medical conditions, injuries or joint pain.

Medical conditions

  • Clients who are overweight often have medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes
  • They may need to get medical clearance from their GP before they train with you
  • The presence of medical conditions may require you to adjust their program.

Joint pain or injuries

  • Excess weight puts increased pressure on joints, so overweight clients will often have joint pain or other injuries
  • You may need to get medical clearance and even refer to a relevant allied health practitioner e.g. a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist
  • The presence of joint pain or injuries may require you to adjust their program.

The benefits of regular exercise outweigh the risks, however the likelihood of adverse events and injury does increase with overweight clients, so it’s important to determine any risk factors and refer to relevant health care practitioners before commencing a program.

Fitness tests

Conducting some fitness tests can be useful, but exercise caution as (depending on how much excess fat they are carrying) many fitness tests can be unsuitable for overweight clients. Most overweight clients already know they are overweight, and losing some of this weight is probably their primary reason for training. Some tests that serve only to highlight this to them could have the adverse effect of being dispiriting.

It is understandable, of course, to want to gauge progress as they continue their training with you, whether this be through physical measures such as waist and hip measurements, or tracking how much weight they can lift, how many reps they can perform or how fast they can comfortably run. In the early days of their training, however, ask yourself whether all the tests you usually conduct with non-overweight clients are really necessary at this stage, or whether they may be more useful a little later on when the client can do more and then get excited about seeing results.

Past experiences and tolerance levels

Most overweight clients aren’t overjoyed about the idea of exercising, let alone doing exercises they actively dislike. They may have a low tolerance for any type of physical activity – including walking – let alone burpees and mountain climbers. Slow and steady is key. Learn more about your client’s exercise experiences and preferences, and avoid making the program too difficult initially. Include exercises they enjoy and limit ones they don’t, starting at low intensity and building on this over time. Allow them to set the pace to some extent. Remember, while you want your training sessions to be effective, you do not want to scare your client off of training before they have achieved any results or established a habit for exercising. The best program in the world is useless if the client stops showing up.

Another reason to go slow and steady is the potentially off-putting factor of muscle soreness. While avid exercisers may ‘learn to love the burn’, this is seldom the case for those new to working out. Working them so hard in early sessions that they are in pain for the rest of the week will not elicit a sense of satisfaction with a job well done; in fact, it may reinforce negative feelings about exercise. Instead, design an appropriate program for their level of fitness and pre-warn them that they may feel a little soreness at first, so they expect it.

Setting goals

Goal setting is essential, but as with all clients, should be realistic and achievable. Not only do you want them to have something to work towards, but you want their goals to increase their motivation, improve their skills, give them a sense of achievement and help boost their self-confidence. You’ve undoubtedly used the SMART model before when developing goals with clients, but it is always useful to reinforce this approach:

Specific: for each goal include specific details of who, what, where, when.
Measurable: include criteria for measuring progress towards the goal set, e.g. number of reps, weight, time.
Achievable: set a goal that can be achieved in the set timeframe and is within the client’s capabilities.
Relevant: set a goal that is important to your client and something they really want to achieve.
Timely: have a realistic timeframe in which the goal is to be achieved.

Choosing appropriate exercises

When it comes to programming for overweight clients, include both cardio and strength exercises, but consider the following points:

  • Don’t include too many floor exercises, because overweight clients can find it difficult to get up and down. Include more standing or seated exercises.
  • Avoid exercises that include jumping around, as these could result in injury for clients carrying a lot of weight.
  • Avoid single leg exercises. Excess weight can put a lot of pressure on joints, so having all that weight on one leg increases risk of injury – particularly as single leg exercises require a level of balance that the client may not have.
  • Avoid embarrassing exercises, because these clients are probably already sensitive to what others may think about them.
  • Start the client on easy exercises or modify exercises to suit their level of fitness or capabilities. For example, rather than a full push up you may start them on a push up on the wall or their knees.
  • Train the whole body in each session. Focusing on all the big muscle groups not only helps burn the most energy, but also spreads the stress of exercise across the body, thus reducing risk of injury.
  • Be cautious with warm ups and stretches. It doesn’t take much for an overweight client to warm up, so don’t get too adventurous; something as simple as a five-minute easy walk on the treadmill can suffice. With regards stretching, these clients generally lack flexibility and balance, so choose appropriately safe and simple options.

Overweight clients and eating

A majority of overweight clients will have the goal of losing weight. While exercise is important for long term health benefits and may aid weight loss, dietary modification will make the biggest difference. Although you can recommend apps such as MyFitness Pal or Easy Diet Diary that help clients track their food intake and weight goals, you should remember that personal trainers are not qualified to provide dietary advice or meal plans. Clients with certain medical conditions may require specific dietary recommendations so advice will need to be tailored. Any advice provided should just be general knowledge; if your client wants a specific plan or additional guidance, refer them to a dietitian for tailored advice.

Training a new overweight client can be rewarding. You will often see results in a short period of time, which is motivating for both them and you. Just remember that going too hard too fast can be counter-productive. Start them slow and steady and prioritise not only getting results but also making training a positive – and sustainable – experience.


Gloria Cabrera is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and personal trainer with Nutrition Savvy. Her passion is food, nutrition, fitness and helping people make permanent dietary and lifestyle changes. nutritionsavvy.com.au