13 Tips That Will Help You Coach Better Remote PT Sessions by Stuart Aitken
Something we now know is that taking personal training sessions through remote platforms is here to stay. Even if you’re back in your gym by July, a percentage of your client base will want to be more cautious and stick with remote workouts. Plus, you now have a service that you can offer to clients who move away and who just want to workout from their home.
If you want your clients to stick around, making your sessions as good as they possibly can be is an excellent retention tool. If they walk away from every single session, online or in-person, thinking “wow, that was a great session!”, what are the chances of them deciding to spend their hard-earned money elsewhere?
For the most part, I’m going to talk about delivering 1-1 sessions rather than group, but many of these can easily be applied to small and large group sessions too.
1. Full Attention
“Each session is like a job interview. Your client can decide if they will be hiring you again” – Patrick McDonagh
I’m most likely preaching to the choir here but one of the things that is always worth reminding yourself when coaching a client is to keep your full attention on them.
A few times each session, try checking in with yourself to see if your full attention is on the client. Are you thinking about your dinner? Are you still frustrated that one of your other clients cancelled or told you they are leaving? Do your best to acknowledge those thoughts, let them pass and put your focus back on your client/s.
A tip for this section is to write down the things you think about. I used to have a sheet of paper I’d replace every 3-4 sessions that I’d write things on. Sometimes I’d write that I needed to email my accountant or buy my little cousin a present, most of the time I’d write down things to remember for next session or something to research. It gives your brain the space it needs to concentrate on what’s in front of it. As David Allen from the book ‘Getting Things Done’ states, “brains are for having ideas, not for remembering them”.
2. Specific Positive Feedback
Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken part in several online PT and group sessions over zoom and other platforms. One of the main bits of feedback I’ve delivered has been to ensure that when the trainer is giving feedback that they try to use positive specific rather than just general positive feedback.
General positive = “good work Karen”, “nice deadlifts David”
Specific positive = “great work on that last set of squats, Karen. Your back position and depth were brilliant. Let’s aim for the same again next set”, “David, you’re looking strong on those deadlifts. Excellent technique and good work on your breathing”
The main reason you want to give specific positive rather than general feedback is because specific positive helps to build feelings of competence, which is the feeling of getting better. Your clients want to know they are improving and using specific feedback helps to highlight where progress is happening. It’s also much more likely to be heard by the client.
Next time you’re in a coaching session, try to use specific positive feedback to highlight the specific things the client/s are doing well. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll be more likely to see that thing happen again.
3. Name Before Coaching Point
A nice and simple tip here.
Instead of saying “go deeper on your squats, Karen”, say “Karen, go deeper on your squats”
This is much more relevant if you’re coaching groups as it helps to draw attention to the right person straight away.
4. Cue Less
“If everything is important, then nothing is” – Patrick Lencioni
Have you ever found yourself coaching a client like this:
Trainer – “So what I want you to do for the squat is:
- Sit down between your knees
- Keeping your feet flat on the ground and pushing through your heels while thinking about ripping a piece of paper with your feet
- Go down slowly but up fast
- At the top squeeze your bum tight
- Keep your eyes straight ahead
- And keep your abs tight and locked in
Does that make sense?”
Client – “Sooo, wait, what do you want me to do?!?”
Although the above example is an exaggeration, most coaches give way too many cues. Mainly this is because of habit and a want to get across as much information as possible, but what happens when too much information is offered is the client feels confused, overwhelmed and like they have no idea what to focus on.
When you’re cueing a client to do an exercise, try to stick to 1-2 main coaching cues. You’ll demonstrate the exercise (if necessary), talk the client through a few key points and then finish by giving them one main thing to focus on. For example, if you’re coaching the squat, you’ll demonstrate, talk through a few key points (knees pushed out, torso tight, slow descent etc) and finish by saying something like “try to widen an imaginary crack in the floor using your shoes”. If the movement isn’t what you’re looking for when the client starts, give them a couple of reps and then offer another cue. One focus at a time.
5. Try Using Timed Blocks
Credit to LTB’s head of education, Gregg Slater for this one.
Rather than setting up your first block of exercises like:
A1. Squat 3×10-12
A2. TRX Row 3×10-15
A3. Banded Deadbug 3×10 Each Side
Try going for time, like 8,10,12 or minutes rather than sets with a range or zone of sets e.g. in the next 10 minutes I’d hope for 2-4 sets.
The reason this works well is because it creates some autoregulation. Client not feeling 100%? Less sets it is. Client feeling ready and raring to go? More sets it is.
The timed blocks also allow you to create a simple structure within the session. You have 2-4 timed blocks of exercises alongside your warm-up and finisher.
Lastly, if you’re coaching groups, you set the timer, each client starts and you can coach fluidly rather than worrying about where each client is at in their reps and sets. Some clients can go hard and get loads done and some can go easier and do less. It can also be used well in groups to individualise volume.
6. Install A Background Noise Blocker
Try this one if you’ve got a noisy home or when we eventually get back to being able to take calls/ meetings from coffee shops.
7. Bookend Questions
Asking the right question before and after you coach a client can give insights into how to personalise your session.
Pre (focus is on gaining information about how to tailor the session to how they are on that given day):
- How did you feel after our last session?
- How would you like to leave today feeling?
- Is there anything specific you would like to work on?
- Is there anything I need to know to create a better workout for you today?
Post (focus is on reflecting and understanding how you can both improve things for the next session):
- What do you feel went well there?
- What are the areas we can work on for next time/ opportunities for growth?
- Anything you would like to see more of/ less of next time?
You don’t need to take everything your client says and make changes, but often what will happen is they’ll give you a piece of information that allows you to create a more personal experience for them.
8. Support Autonomy Within The Session
Autonomy is one of three basic psychological needs that every person needs to feel to thrive and grow. It is a feeling of having ownership or control over what is happening.
One of the main ways to support autonomy, that you’re probably already doing in some form, is to try your best to give them meaningful choices. This can be as simple as “would you like to start or end with your ab workout?” or as complex as “would you to do 1.5 or pause-go reps instead of normal reps for this exercise?”
I like to give my clients more autonomy over our third exercise in each block we do. For example, we might do a deadlift followed by a push-up followed by either a core or mobility exercise. For the core or mobility, they get to choose what one they would prefer to do. This does not work for all clients as some don’t want or need that kind of choice, but for the right client it can be empowering and enjoyable.
Another way to support their autonomy during your sessions is to involve them in the coaching process as much as you can. After doing a cycle of training (4-12 weeks of training), give them the chance to offer feedback about what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy.
9. Coaching Angles
We’ve all experienced some rather interesting coaching angles during this time, but as much as possible we want to continue to be ‘active’ in our coaching and take up different angles. Ask the client to stand diagonally so you can see side on and part of their front or back. If I’m coaching a client through something that necessitates different coaching angles, I get them to do half the reps from one and half on another. If it’s perfect and I know this client rarely ever has movement faults, we only do this occasionally, but for a newer client who may still be learning a movement, we do it more regularly.
10. Use Analogies/ External Cues
If you’re an LTB member and you’ve worked through Gregg Slater’s Movement Solutions course or you’ve read any of Nick Winkelman’s work, you’ll know that external cues or analogies are more effective at driving learning and performance (and analogies can be way more fun to create and use when coaching!) than the use of internal cues. Internal cues being a cue in relation to the body, like chest up, and external cues being in relation to outside the body, like jump towards the ceiling.
If you’ve ever taught a client how to hip hinge on Monday and got to a point where you’re delighted with their progress only to come back in on Thursday to see they’ve forgotten how to do it, you’ll know why learning is important.
When you’re coaching your clients, try your best to use external cues or analogies to cue them. Rather than saying “abs tight” and “glutes squeezed” during a plank you could say “imagine you’re about to take a punch in the stomach and you’re holding a £10 note in between your butt cheeks that you don’t want me to steal”. It’ll not only give most clients a laugh, but they’ll remember it for next time and they’ll be able to picture the feeling you’re looking for much quicker.
Analogies can also be much more memorable for clients. If I say during a plank anti-rotation/ plank shoulder tap exercise that I want them to keep their hips so steady that they wouldn’t spill (insert favourite drink) that is sitting on their lower back, next time we go to do that exercise I can simply say “remember that G&T” and they’ll know what to do.
This does not mean you should never use an internal cue like abs tight or chest up, but whenever we’re saying something during a session we want to consider whether it’s helping the client. Often, an internal cue like abs tight is nothing more than noise.
11. Collaborate When Creating Cues
Following on from my last point, something Nick Winkelman mentions in his new book the Language of Coaching is to use an external cue or analogy with a client and then ask them to put that cue into their own words. This allows the client to feel like they are part of the process (autonomy support) and it allows you as the coach to learn how they interpret what you’re saying.
A recent example of this from my own coaching was during the demonstration of a banded pallof press. I told my client that she was to brace her abs like she was about to take a punch but after asking her how she interpreted that cue, she told me it was exactly the same as how she had to brace during the mixing stage of baking a cake. Excellent! Guess how I’m now going to cue her whenever we do a pallof press? “Remember to brace like you’re baking a cake!”
Now we’ve got a cue that is specific and personal to her. If you compare that to “brace your abs”, we’ve got something that’s more likely to be remembered and make the client feel valued.
Next time you use a cue, try asking your client to “put this cue into your own words” or a question along the lines of “what does this cue mean to you?”. The replies are the kind of coaching nuggets that will help make your personal training sessions more personal.
12. Use Reps in Reserve (RIR) Rather Than Rep Targets
One of the biggest challenges you’ll encounter with home training is finding ways to overload. If you programme a squat and the client has no kettlebell or dumbbell, you’ll be forced to use something like a backpack. Although this is a great alternative, what you’ll soon find is that the typical 5-15 rep range is no longer enough to challenge a client.
Reps in reserve is a measure that is used to express how hard a set felt. So, if you do a set of front squats or bench press that was incredibly hard, you might say it was 9 out of 10 RIR, meaning you had very little left to give. Whereas if you felt like you had a few more reps in the tank, you could say it was a 6 or 7 out of 10 RIR.
Rather than saying “go for 8-12 reps” give the client room to go up to 30 reps to get to a challenging RIR number.
The other option here is to start to use some ‘set spicer’ options like isometrics, 1.5 reps (always brutal), paused reps and go-pause (do 12 reps, pause for 12 seconds) or pause-go (pause for 12 seconds, do 12 reps).
13. Use of Lighting
Thanks to LTB member, Cameron Cummings for this tip.
I’m sure you’ve been in a session where you struggle to see your client because of bad lighting. Before you get into a session, let your client know that being in a room with good natural light behind the camera helps you to coach them. This works both ways so aim to do the same and get your lighting behind your camera so they can see clearly you when you demonstrate an exercise. The small things like this add up.
Something we should all be focussed on when we are with our clients is to create as good an experience as possible for them. The better the client experience, the more likely it is they’ll keep coming back. Remote/ online coaching isn’t perfect and I know many of you miss in-person, but hopefully, some of these suggestions will help you create a better online coaching experience for your clients.