Four Nails in the Coffin of a Strength Coach

Article written by Pete Stables

As a young and upcoming strength coach, your goal is to make your client bigger, better, stronger and faster. But beware; breaking records, diagnosis of injuries and discounted sessions, could leave your income revenue down and your business belly up…

We all want results for our customers. That’s how we generate more business, right? Word of mouth is free marketing, and happy lifters should equal a happy and prosperous work life. How then, do good intentions lead to a declining client list if PR’s are being broken and the door to the gym is in constant rotation? After navigating plenty of ups and downs in the fitness industry for the past 15 years, I can tell you that there are four key factors that could negatively affect your livelihood.

  1. The ‘Bro Spot’

How many times have you had a potential business opportunity walk up to you, expressing their desire to take their 205lb bench press to 405lb in the next 6 months, (whilst simultaneously losing fat and gaining muscle)? In the eye of the neophyte, the jacked- and- tan strength coach seemingly possesses a  magic key that the ectomorphic gym muggle must attain, should they wish to unlock the gains they hoped would materialise within the first 2 weeks of signing up to their local 24 hour fitness establishment. However, unless you are willing to lay out the cold hard facts regarding how long it could really take to add 50lb’s of solid muscle to his frame and 250lb’s to his squat, the pressure is now squarely on you, the trainer, to deliver otherworldly results in an unreasonable amount of time. It’s either that, or tell the skinny-fat 155lb greenhorn that the only way he will ever have 405lbs in his hands is when he deadlifts it for the first time- In 2 or 3 years.

If you have any grounding as a Strength coach you will hopefully begin your protégé’s journey with a standard linear progression, focussing on sets of 5 with the goal of adding weight to the bar at every workout, or, percentage based training such as the Lift Big Eat Big 4 Week Beginner Program. A good trainer will either calculate percentages based on the current 1rm of said newbie or begin with sets of five that leave plenty of room for weeks of progress- not to mention keeping a record of each micro-cycle of sets and reps.

But what, if, like so many out there, the trainee fails to eat enough to support progress? And equally likely he only ventures in to train with you once per week? Any lack of motivation to return and complete the weeks remaining two or three sessions by himself will almost certainly hinder progress.

Neither of these circumstances are optimal  and let’s face it, many of us simply cannot afford to train with a professional three days out of seven, or possess the discipline to eat enough food consistently on a day-in day-out basis. On an unforgiving program that requires incremental jumps in weight at each session, failure to adhere to the correct loading and recovery protocols will leave almost anyone tapping out very quickly. Watching your client struggling with his first rep of his final set of 5 and realising he probably won’t hit another, leaves you with a choice. Allow him to fail, explaining that he will have to reset -not what he wants to hear- or gently apply a little pressure to the bar for the remaining reps and watch his face light up as he successfully completes his terminal set.

The same goes for spotting your client when retesting a 1rm.

You will both undoubtedly have a target weight for testing day that is almost certainly too lofty- and you know this. The big pull though, is that if he hits his 225lb bench he’ll be back for more sessions. If he misses, he may not.

What do you do? Let him suffer the indignity of barely moving the weight as much as an inch off his chest, or, place your hands atop the bar and utter the immortal line – “IT’S ALL YOU BRO!”

Ok, so you opted for the latter. What’s the big deal? He’s hit a new PR and walks out of the gym with his pigeon chest puffed out; as far as he’s concerned your coaching was worth every cent! The issue now is that he thinks he is stronger than he actually is. From a programming perspective, the percentages you use henceforth are technically invalid, and for him to make any progress at all on 5×5 or SS, he now requires you to be there coaxing the weight up earlier and earlier into his worksets. A snowball effect has begun. Suspicion usually sets in roughly around the time that his Bench starts overtaking his Deadlift (since this is the only lift you cannot assist, unless, of course you are braindead enough to attempt the infamous ‘chin spot’), or when he bombs on his opener at his first powerlifting meet. And what happens in a months’ time when he tries for 235lb alone in his basement? With no spotter and a false sense of his own ability, the potential for injury or worse, is very real.

Understand that you must manage your client’s expectations from day one. Have the guts to program using reasonable numbers and focus on realistic short and long term goals. If you don’t, you will be caught out sooner or later. If you con someone into thinking they will add 100lbs to their bench press by simply signing up with you, the eventual, inevitable outcome will be at best, disappointment and at worst disaster.

  1. Diagnosing injuries.

If you’ve been a trainer for longer than 6 months then you will have come across all manner of injuries. Bad backs, shoulders, knees, hips and necks are all common place. Inevitably, clients will ask for your advice on how best to treat any number of problems. Assuming you are simply a certified strength and conditioning coach and do not supplement your income moonlighting as a Doctor, you likely do not have access to an ultrasound or an MRI. In which case your response should probably be: “As your coach, I am here to help you become stronger and fitter. I am not qualified to provide you with a medical diagnosis regarding your ailment and would suggest you seek advice from a qualified professional.”

Hang on a minute though, you’ve seen an injury like this before. You also read an article by your favourite movement coach this morning over coffee that has your confirmation bias kicking in pretty hard about now. Who needs years of med school when the answer can be found so easily with a quick Google search?

Be careful. What started out as a possibly minor injury which may have simply required a week off, could land you in hot water when you prescribe an exercise that exacerbates the problem – or worse, leads to further injury.  Despite how sure you are of your wealth of knowledge when it pertains to the innumerable complexities of the human body, your qualifications reflect otherwise.

What this all boils down to is that, regardless of how many seminars and weekend certifications you may have attended, without  being able to see underneath the skin of your injured trainee, any opinion you have on how best to rehabilitate your client is conjecture at best. And when you, as an individual, have access to a ton of bars and plates, and a desire to impress with your unlimited knowledge, well… that makes you just about the most dangerous person for a paying customer to be around.

Let your client go and establish a correct diagnosis. Once this has happened they will likely be advised on which lifts to avoid and also be prescribed a list of exercises that you can take them through, safe in the knowledge that you have done everything correctly from a best practice standpoint and your reputation will remain intact. Far better that than risking hurting your client further or elongating the recovery time, because you’ve “seen this problem before”. Yes, if you can think of a more appropriate exercise than a 1980’s dogma-bound physiotherapist has prescribed, then go ahead and switch it up if you’re confident. But I’d recommend playing it safe- especially if you’re new to this racket.

This does not mean you cannot train your client. Most coaches will simply work around an injury by using exercises that don’t cause pain or directly work the aggravated area. Be warned though, that this is not the time to push for 100% either, regardless of how little pain they may be feeling with the prescribed movements. Remain cautious.

Remember, 99% of injuries heal all by themselves, so be smart and cover your end.

  1. Not Charging Enough

Given the context of the last two statements, you may think that I do not place much stock in the abilities of most Strength & Conditioning Coaches. This could not be further from the truth. By contrast, let me say that I’d be suspicious of Richard Branson in his ability to coach me in Track and Field.

Provided that you stay in your lane, you are in a unique position to change another person’s life for the better and could be a great source of inspiration to those who require it. If helping people is your passion, you love to train, and you love to provide quality information, based on what you have learned from studying hard -on top of many hours of in-person coaching- then you are of great value.

Most people hate their jobs. When they come to you, they don’t want to see that familiar lack of drive that eats away at them from nine to five, Monday to Friday. For these people, this single hour is often their release from the burden of daily life and is something they genuinely look forward to. If you give away free or discounted sessions, you may not feel as compelled to plan as hard for that workout; or you may even let your attitude reflect how your client feels when stuck in their office cubicle. Charging a little more than you are comfortable with, on the other hand, will almost certainly ensure that you go the extra mile to give the best possible service you can.

I understand, you’re afraid to ask for more. You think charging less than the other trainers will have punters flocking your way: but you’re wrong.

Derek Sivers recently alluded to the fact that those who spend more on a particular product or service, value it more. I’d be inclined to agree.

Studies have shown that people who were given a placebo pill were twice as likely to be alleviated of their symptoms when told the pill was expensive.

By charging more and also enforcing a strict 12 or 24-hour cancellation policy, you are much less likely to receive a text fifteen minutes before your 6am client is due to arrive, claiming to have woken up with a headache, food poisoning or having slept through their alarm.

Imagine, for a moment, that you went to the bakery and were offered seven of the finest doughnuts ever created- all for $1. The caveat is that you will be allotted only one doughnut per day from Monday through Sunday, and collection time is within a strict five minute window when the bakery opens promptly, at 6am. How likely is it that the average person will crawl out of bed and make the 20 minute drive, arriving on time, to collect their pre-paid Krueller each and every morning that week? No matter how damned delicious those lovingly crafted morsels might be, they only cost $1. Not a great loss if you accidentally sleep in one morning. Now, imagine instead that those seven doughnuts had cost you $20 each. Rather than hitting the snooze button on Sunday, I’d be willing to bet that the $140 you forked out ensures that that mornings breakfast tastes every bit as good as Raymond K Hessel’s did, after a chance encounter with Tyler Durden.

Operating your business in such a fashion quickly weeds out those who are serious about working with you and those who aren’t.

You provide a service of equal value to any other professional out there, and assuming that you are constantly striving to improve upon this service, do not be afraid to let your prices reflect this.

As The Joker once said: “If you’re good at something never do it for free.”

  1. Negativity

This is a really big one, if you plan on hanging on to your clients. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard trainers complaining about how little sleep they’ve had, how they struggle to train when they’re sooo busy, or how hard in general things are for them whilst coaching a paying customer. Let me tell you this; you are not being paid to unload on your client. That is not why they are there, no matter how accommodating they are of your woes. Have you ever been to your doctor or dentist and had to listen to them waffle on about their personal issues? Of course not. They are trained professionals and so are you! I understand that, as a coach you, will hear all about your trainee’s life in the minutest of detail. Often times you may feel more akin to a psychiatrist than a drill sergeant but do not be tempted to allow this process to be a two way conversation. You can, of course, offer advice, but for most folks the very act of simply being listened to is usually all they will need from you. For you to then ‘one up’ them by speaking about your hardships is massively unprofessional and likely very off-putting for your client, too.

To really stand out in this fickle business, be sure to have your sessions planned ahead of time, arrive early, record every lift in your notebook and be POSITIVE. Always be engaging and ready to smile. If a lift falters on a technicality, offer a fix, rather than simply pointing out the fault. Thank your client at the end of the session and congratulate them on anything that went particularly well that day. Always reply to emails and texts promptly.

Finally, never expect to be treated as well by your clients as you treat them. It is unlikely they will always be in a good mood, reply quickly (if at all) to your texts and emails, tip you at Christmas or even pay on time without needing three reminders. They’re human. Do not let this influence how you behave with your client. It makes me laugh when I hear certain big names in the strength-field telling coaches that if their trainee doesn’t work hard or complains too much, you should just fire them. This sounds all too similar to those born with a silver spoon in their mouth; trust funds ready and waiting for them when they hit 18 years old and with zero idea of what it actually feels like to be in the red. It’s easy when you have Mommy and Daddy backing you up to tell those who live in the real world that if you hate your job you should just quit- or better yet, just go and travel for a year to “find yourself”. Bad news friend; you probably don’t’ have that option, yet. If any one of your clients isn’t to your liking, just remember that they’re paying your bills.

That…is life. Suck it up, stay positive and be prepared to learn from any situation, good and bad, that you encounter on your path to becoming a well-respected strength coach.

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Pete Stables is a Uk based Strength Coach, Nutritional Consultant and Fitness writer. His work has been published in print for magazines such as ‘Perfect Body’ and in 2016 his ’16 Week Powerlifting/Bodybuilding Hybrid Program’ was the top ranked article (highest traffic) for He is also a competitive Powerlifter and Trail Runner and in 2014 took the BPU British Powerlifting record in the 220lb raw with wraps class. He is also the author of two best selling ebooks and can be contacted via his website