Training the Obese Beginner: Part 6

So my meticulously planned schedule managed to get messed up which is why this is a day late and you’ll have to wait for my next video until next week.  So it goes.  In any case, today I’m going to finish up the republication of this series (with a couple of added sections).  And this piece if very long for which I apologize, when I originally wrote this I was forced into 6 parts for some reason.

In Training the Obese Beginner: Part 5, I made a case for the inclusion of both weight training and cardiovascular training for the obese beginner, despite having listed some initial limitations to both in earlier parts of the series.  I also gave a general overview of what I did in the first session with those clients.

Today I want to look specifically at how I approached that first day/weeks of training (again noting that there are obviously more ways to approach the situation than just this one).  I’ll also look a bit at some things I might do differently now as well as talking about progressions, variation, etc. to keep the obese beginner moving towards their goals in the longer term.

So as a reminder, we’re in the first session with an obese beginner.  The first 25-30 minutes has been spent going through basic intake paperwork.  Depending on the specifics, body weight, tape measurements and maybe skinfolds have been taken (refer to the last part for more discussing on this topic).  Since this is an hour session, that leaves around 25-30 minutes for the actual workout.  Here’s what I generally did.

Part 1: Cardio

Pretty much without exception, Id start the client with some form of cardio.   Usually I’d use the treadmill and I choose this for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, everybody knows how to walk (at least one study showed that, for the same intensity, people burn more calories on the treadmill since it’s a movement pattern they are efficient at).  Second, the intensity can be easily controlled by adjusting pace and incline which is critical for ensuring that the first workout isn’t too difficult.

Third, walking tends not to cause the local muscular fatigue that something like an exercise bike or Stairmaster or whatever does in beginners since it’s more whole body. This limits unpleasant sensations and excessive fatigue that tie into the aspects of generating positive affect I talked about in Training the Obese Beginner: Part 4.  Fourth, it gave me a chance to chat and give the first of many mini-lectures without having to worry about anything else; I had a captive audience and it was as good a way to kill the time/distract them from the exercise as any.

I would note that there is no real reason not to go outside and walk if that’s available and the weather permits.  It is harder to gauge the intensity but can have benefits in terms of teaching clients that they can always find something to do activity wise even if they don’t have machines available.

But I was always working in environments where the outdoors were busy streets or the gym was in a strip mall or what have you and I had to work with what was available.  At one gym I worked at, we didn’t have treadmills so I’d walk with them on the track that surrounded the main area.

In contrast, two friends in the Austin area (who I’ll mention below) get their clients walking outdoors for warm-ups since the area around the gym will support it and they don’t want them reliant on machines.  It’s just a function of adapting to what you have available and trainers need to keep in mind that the principles are what’s important; the details less so.

Now many will argue that it’s a “waste” of time for a trainer to monitor cardio sessions and I don’t necessarily disagree (other trainers make their clients do 30 minutes of cardio during an hour session while they watch to cut down on what they have to do).

However, sometimes you have a client that simply won’t do the cardio if you’re not there watching them.   I’m not saying it’s right, but it is reality.  Ultimately, if a client wants to pay me to keep them company on the treadmill, I guess that’s their problem even if I’d rather them get into the habit of doing it on their own so the training time is spent on relatively more useful things.

But in the initial stages, and especially in that first session (and even the first few sessions), since weight training wasn’t going to take much time, I would routinely monitor cardio sessions.  Not only for proper intensity, progression (discussed below) but, again, so I could give all kinds of little mini-lectures on various aspects of training, nutrition, etc.  This goes towards the education aspect of training I mentioned in previous parts of this series.  Cardio sessions were an excellent time to start educating the client about what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Now, it’s all too easy as a trainer to just say “Do this” (and certainly some clients don’t want to know the whys of what they are doing; they just want you to tell them and be done with it) but that may not help the client ideally in the long-term.

What if they move, what if you move, what happens when you go on a vacation?  A lot of things can happen that cut the client off from you.  If you’ve taught the client why they are doing certain things and how to train, they can (in premise at least) do it on their own.

If you’ve made them nothing but reliant on you, you haven’t done that.  A lot of trainers do this, using a variety of techniques.  One is to change the workout all the time, convincing the client that they can’t possibly train without you changing their program every workout (yes, fine, if you’re working with elite athletes this may be valid; for most general trainees and certainly the obese beginner it is not).  Another is to use a myriad of horribly over-complicated exercises; again to make the client reliant on you to be there.  As you can imagine, I don’t personally believe in that approach.

My goal, in a lot of ways, was to get my clients to the point that they didn’t need me any more.   It might not have been the best attitude from an income perspective but it was the only way I felt good about what I was doing.  I usually found that, if I were doing my job well, clients would often continue hiring me because they wanted to do so, not necessarily because they needed to do so.

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The First Mini-Lecture: The FITT Principle

In any case, a key mini-lecture that I always gave on the first day was to explain the F.I.T.T. principle of training: Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type.  Or how often, how hard, how long and what.  Specifically with this first lecture I covered those issues in terms of basic strength and cardiovascular fitness along with health.

I needed to make them aware of things like minimums for activity (e.g. 3X/week for cardio work, more if possible but three times per week as a minimum, weight training a minimum of 2 times per week).  Time (e.g. 20 minutes cardio as a minimum, more may be better, but that’s the minimum).   I’d explain that the type of cardio didn’t really matter so much; the best activity was the one that they would do.  You get the idea.

But the big one for this first lecture was intensity.  How hard does it need to be to be worthwhile and how hard did I want them working?  This ties into the stuff I talked about in Training the Obese Beginner Part 4.  Now since most were at least familiar with the concept, I’d first introduce them to the whole idea of heart rate and then basically throw it out, preferring to use the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale.  It’s less of a hassle than using heart rate and, with practice, turns out to be more or less just as accurate.

I used the 1-10 RPE scale (rather than the original 6-20 scale, which I keep meaning to write about) and would give them an idea of the ranges by describing 1 as sitting on the couch and 10 as an all-out effort.  I used the example of getting to the airport late and having to sprint to the terminal and feeling like you’re going to die in the process since that was something most could relate to.  I’d tell them that that was a 10.

I’d then explain that, during their initial cardio sessions, I wanted them working at about a 3-4 on this scale, which I described as challenging but doable (so not too hard but not too easy either).   Which is sort of interesting since it basically would seem to be what the data on affect and self-paced activity I discussed in Part 4 suggests as optimal; let people work at a self-selected intensity and they’ll work at a challenging but achievable level somewhat below the point where they would cross the ventilatory threshold and start to generate a negative psychological affect.

That research wasn’t around at that point, it just made sense to me so that’s what I did.  Invariably they’d pick a fairly slow, brisk walking pace if that but I didn’t care.  I told them to make it challenging but not impossible and usually they’d pick the right pace or maybe a little bit below it.  I’d ask them during the bout to estimate RPE to start having them learn to correlate the numbers.  Using RPE is only effective if you practice so I’d give them plenty of chances to do so.

For the hell of it, I’d usually have them use the machine to check heart rate and it was almost always right in the right spot; at worst it was a little bit below the supposed “ideal” range.  Again, as I’ve hammered throughout this series, I was far more interested in them accomplishing the workout successfully than how hard they were working; there would always be time to increase the workload.  Pretty much every study ever shows that beginner get fitness gains of some sort with any intensity above “nothing” at all (a recent review has even pointed out that aerobic activity will generate muscle growth in the untrained) so I simply saw no point in pushing them.  Certainly not on the first day.

Related to this, someone in the comments section of Training the Obese Beginner Part 4 (when I originally published this series) asked about the “talk test” and, to be sure, this is another valid way of setting a proper aerobic intensity.  I would tell my clients that another way to gauge cardio intensity is that they should be able to keep a broken conversation during the workout.

That if they could talk non-stop it was too easy, if they were gasping for breath between words, it was too hard.  If they could keep a broken conversation, that was right.  This would invariably put them at the same 3-4 RPE and correct workload/HR for them.

Now, as I noted in a previous part, I have had beginner clients for whom 5 minutes of continuous activity at even this low/moderate of a workload was nearly at their limits.   I would simply tell them to stop the session if they started to feel particularly fatigued and let the duration fall where it may in that first session.

If it was 5 minutes, that was fine.  If they went to 10 minutes, I’d usually still stop them since we had other stuff to do with the remaining time (remember that this is workout #1 and I usually only had 25-30 minutes total to work with).

But now wasn’t the time to push things at all.  Remember the goal: break them in without breaking them.

If there were time later in the session, I might take them back to the treadmill for 5-10 more minutes or suggest they cool down after the hour was up to get a little bit more time at that first session.  In subsequent workouts, and I’ll talk about progressions below, I might do the same 5-10 minutes up front (and start progressing the time gradually) and ask for a 5-10 minute cool-down.  Another option when you have a full hour to work with, as I mentioned, is to alternate 5-10 minutes of cardio with a few weight exercises, accumulating a larger amount of total time without doing it all at once.

But again I’m meant to be talking about that first workout.  Ultimately no matter how I cut it, they’d end up with anywhere from 5-20 total minutes of aerobic activity, at a low/comfortable (and usually self-selected intensity) and they’d accomplish it without dying in the process.  That was the goal. Hell, even if they only get 10 total minutes, that’s still more than they would have done otherwise.

Of course, I’d always get them to add a minute or two at the next workout to start working on progression immediately.  So 5 minutes in the first session would become 7 in the second which would become 9 in the third.  Even if it didn’t have quite the same impact (in my experience) as improvement in the weight room, it still felt like improvement to them which is what mattered.   They felt progress without feeling like they were having to kill themselves in the process.  This is part of how you generate adherence.

Ok, so cardio is done, what’s next?

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Part 2: Weights

After that 5-10 minutes of cardio was done, it was time for weights.   Now, those of you embroiled in the current trends in fitness are wondering “what about the dynamic stretching, what about foam rolling, what about activation?”  Well, I didn’t do any of it.  At the time, nobody did and I wouldn’t have had time anyhow during the first session. Full range weight training acts as a dynamic stretching stimulus as it is and I was content with that.

Make no mistake, that’s all fantastic stuff to add if you have time and they have the interest (and certainly it can be important and play a role in the gym).  But this is about day 1 and workout 1, the goal was getting them through 20-30 minutes of activity successfully and that meant paring things down to the bare basics.

Even if I had known about all that currently trendy stuff, I wouldn’t have done any of it.  Not on day 1 anyhow (I’d often stretch clients at the end of workouts at later sessions).  Save it for the second or third session when you have the full hour and more time to work with.

Anyhow, so now we went to weights.  And here I will show my hereticism and spur yet another silly debate in the comments section and hatred across the Internet:  With few exceptions, in this client population, I almost exclusively used machines in those initial workouts.(sometimes I’d teach a dumbbell chest press if I were bored with teaching the chest press machines).

Yes, I know…it’s non-functional.  Yes, I know…body weight is better.  Yes…I know all of the arguments for why barbell training is the only thing every one on the planet should ever do.  Except that it isn’t.  Not in this case.  Not in the environment I was in (I’ll come back to this topic at the very end of this series))

Remember my overarching goal here: generate success without breaking the client. Nothing else matters except that one goal initially and no amount of macho dogmatic spew changes that.  Because the basic fact is this, when you’re working with untrained obese beginners with no previous training background (and usually no movement background of any sort), almost anything more complex than the simplest of exercises is going to overwhelm them.

And before you argue with me differently, tell me how many people you have ever seen in any gym squatting or deadlifting properly.  I’ve been in gyms for damn near three decades (and had a clue what was going on for maybe two of those) and I can count the total on a few hands at most.

Face facts, these movements are too technically complex for most people without a lot of coaching and this is evidenced by the fact that most suck at them no matter what; in the population I’m discussing in this article series, there is just too much to lose and to little to be gained by starting with technically demanding complicated exercises.

Now, people with a movement background can’t understand this, they understand where there bodies are in space, they don’t understand why someone new to activity (whether obese or not) just feels like a total spazz trying to do complicated stuff.  They assume that since they can do it, everyone should be able to.  They also usually fail to realize that, while the motivated psycho will fight through stuff they suck at, the typical obese beginner will not.

And simply, if you give the “average” obese beginner that type of stuff (whether functional movements or simply complex free weight exercises) right off the bat, they won’t be able to do it well, they’ll feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and all you’ll have done is verified in their mind is that exercise is a miserable horror that they don’t want any part of.  And that’s not a good thing to do.

Ultimately, no matter how much I loved squatting and pulling and all of the fun stuff, I didn’t see those exercises as generating the positive reinforcement I wanted out of the starting gate.  And, of course, I could always teach those movements later as necessary.  This was sort of the vague point I made in an earlier part: with total beginners you have to get them in shape to train.  That means using activities that they can actually accomplish meaningfully.   Many movements in vogue today simply don’t meet that important criterion in my opinion.

As well, I often only had 3 short sessions to get the person to basic competency in the weight room (i.e. they were willing to purchase a 3-pack of sessions with me to get started).  As I discussed in more detail in the Beginning Weight Training series, that tended to limit how complex of a movement I could teach.

You can get anyone to basic competency on machines in 3 sessions.  Try doing that with something more complex and they’ll end up killing themselves training alone on those movements.  They end up knowing just enough to get hurt.  And again before you argue with me about this go to the average gym and look at how people are doing squats and deadlifts; it’s not pretty and you know it.

Now, once again, I realize that the above is heretical in the day and age where “functional” training and body weight stuff are all the rage.  So…

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Let me Rant A Little Bit About Body Weight/Functional Exercises

I read a lot of training e-books, it’s part of my job to keep track with what people in the industry are doing and where the trends are moving so that I can bitch about it.  And I always smile when I see someone advocating things like t-pushups and burpees and all of that trendy bodyweight stuff for fat loss in total beginners….and the exercises are almost always being demonstrated by someone who weighs maybe 160 lbs and is already fit.   And who has spent most of their week reading marketing manuals and working on their sales page since that’s clearly more important than honing their actual craft of training people.

So why do I think this is a problem?  Let’s look at a simple push-up, assuming a 300 pound client.  Let’s assume you let that client do a modified push-up so that they are pivoting off their knees.  Let’s make some back of the envelope calculations and say that they are only lifting roughly 2/3rds of their weight (and I know the physics of this is more complicated but I’m not drawing a vector diagram and mathing this out).  That’s still 20o pounds.

Let’s be generous and say it’s only 150 pounds of required force.  How many obese beginners do you know who can bench 150-200 pounds right off the gate? Exactly.  Because that’s very roughly the level of strength this requires.  And it’s worse for women who, by and large, are even weaker pound for pound in the upper body than men.

Now you’re telling me that you want to do a one-armed t-push up with that same client?  Please.   Burpees are often just as bad; they can be done but generally not well.  So what happens, as often as not, is that those types of movements end up being a miserable disappointing experience for the beginner obese client (they carry shades of the hell of old PE classes).

They simply require a level of coordination, strength and fitness that generally isn’t there.  And since I don’t see them as accomplishing much more in this population than simpler, more easily learned, movements, I see no point to them.  At least not initially.  Please note that last word before you leave nasty comments on this article.

Similarly, it used to kill me watching some 130 lb female personal trainer putting their 250 lb female client through walking lunge sets.  I mean, that’s what the trainer (who is light with years of training behind them) does to look all hot, what’s the problem?   But that trainer has no clue about what’s it’s like to be that big, to have no movement background or years of training behind them.  Nor do they seem to see the problems the client is having with the movement (knees breaking in, torso collapsing); they are usually too busy flirting with the cute guy in the tank top or another personal trainer.

The same comments could be made for a lot of the currently in vogue functional movements.  I see it constantly at my current gym, trainers having un-coordinated, overweight beginners balancing on one leg and doing something stupid with a DB or cable in the other hand.  It’s not only not functional (exactly what real world task is this supposed to mimick?) but it isn’t accomplishing much of anything except maybe to waste time and make the client feel like an idiot because they can’t do the movement well.

In a similar vein, I know that it is a popular idea that you should be able to control your own body weight before you lift weights; this appears to have come out of the training of athletes and gotten transferred to the general training mentality.  And it may very well be true if you’re used to dealing with young male athletes who can actually do a meaningful number of repetitions with body weight from the get go.

But it’s rarely true if you’re working with untrained older individuals who haven’t done an ounce of exercise for a decade.  And almost never true for the obese beginner who I’m talking about in this series.  Yes, fine, some lower body movements are going to be doable (if they can stand, they can squat), but most upper body exercises are going to require levels of strength and coordination you just won’t see in this population.

Basically, for a lot of body weight movements, you need a base of strength to be able to do them competently in the first place.  And if you can’t do them competently (or at all) because the load of your body is simply too high, then you can’t use them to gain the strength that you need.  Because you can’t make a lot of progress when you can only do zero repetitions of a movement.

In contrast, by using machines (or even light dumbbells), you can start that person with a tiny percentage of their body mass.  Contrast the push-up example I gave above which might require the rough equivalent of a 150-200 pound bench to starting someone on a machine that may only have 10 pounds on it (or 5 pound dumbbells in each hand).  The obese beginner might not be able to do a single repetition of the body-weight exercise, or might only grind out a handful of hard-fought reps.   In contrast, they can do a full set of however many repetitions with the machine or DB movement and I can increment that exercise gradually as they grow stronger.

So quick-quiz time:
1. Which exercise do you think will stimulate a training effect so that they can make progress?
2. Which exercise will allow the trainee to accomplish it without murdering themselves.
Bonus question: Which do you think will make the trainee feel good about the workout?

Using machines or less complicated movements also puts the trainee in a far more controlled environment; fine, many will argue that it’s non-functional or removes stabilizers or whatever but that’s the point of doing it this way (move from simplicity to complexity, not the other way around).

In this population, the goal is to get them working out without making them feel horrible.  And using simpler exercises, that let you start light without forcing complex movement patterns accomplishes that and gives the possibility for success and positive reinforcement moreso than the converse in my opinion and experience. Which, as I continue to hammer home I feel is a key in training the obese beginner (and arguably less true in training the psycho motivated wannabe athlete in which case, go to town).

As I mentioned way back Part 1,  I’ve noted that many beginners are already self-conscious as hell about being in the gym in the first place, and this can be even more true for the obese beginner.  Making them look (and more importantly feel) foolish in the gym by giving them complex movements that they can’t do is not good for adherence.  They have to feel success and they have to feel it from day 1.

In a related vein, I tried to avoid having my obese clients have to get up and down off the floor too often; as that seemed to also cause embarrassment for some.  For that reason alone, even though I think poorly of most of them, I usually used ab machines rather than floor ab work.

I simply taught them correctly (focus on spinal flexion rather than hip flexion).  The same would hold true of any stretching or other movements that you might typically do on the floor.  And, look, I’m not saying this is universal; but there are considerations that someone who has never been obese just often doesn’t consider when working with that population.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think that more complex movements are useless in this population; there may very well be specific situations where they are appropriate depending on the specifics (please re-read that sentence until the belief that “Lyle only uses machines with trainees” has left your brain).

They could always be added later after the client was into good habits, had lost some weight, had developed some of the basic strength and fitness needed to do them and needed some variety in their training or to move to something more intensive.  There may be situations, which you have to decide on a case by case basis, where you’ll start an obese beginner with more complex movements.  I’ll come back to this below.

But I don’t think they are the right thing to start with under most circumstances for most trainees in this population.  Beating this dead horse some more, I’m not saying that I used machines exclusively forever (I know at least one person will claim that in the comments section), simply that I usually always started with them.  Got it?  Good.

Ok, let’s get off that soapbox…I’ll save the rest of that rant for a series on exercise choice that I’m going to write at some point.

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Back to the First Weight Workout

So I used machines with the majority of beginners, obese or not.  Because my goal was to get people in shape to train, to get them into regular exercise habits and to do it in such a fashion that they got the greatest chance of feeling success from the first to second workout.

And complex multi-planar and/or body weight movements generally didn’t achieve that goal in my opinion.  There’s too much going on and too much chance of embarrassment, feeling incompetent and simply having old expectations about how miserable working out is get further reinforced.  None of which adds up to long-term adherence.

On machines, I could control not only the loading more accurately but ensure that they got at least something out of it training wise since they could actually do more than a handful of repetitions without dying in the process.   So that’s what I did and this is how I approached in in that first session.

Generally, after the cardio was done, I’d have time to do maybe 4 weight room exercises that first day (the routine I traditionally used appears below).  Because of what I selected in terms of exercise, I was able to give the client a “full body” workout (with almost no exception I can think of, don’t use split routines with a beginner, certainly not of the bodypart emphasis type or you’ll end up doing some really stupid things programming wise) and was about all I had time for at this point anyhow.  Again, it allowed me to break them in without breaking them.

Now I come from the “Tell me, show me, involve me” school of teaching which basically says “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I might remember, involve me and I will remember.”   I generally do all three and in that order.

So first I’d introduce the exercise and tell them what it was and what it trained.  For example, “This is the chest press, it will train primarily your chest muscles along with your shoulders and triceps.  If you had to pick only one or two upper body exercises, this should be one of them along with the next movement I’m going to show you which is the row.”

Then I’d show them how to do the movement focusing on just a handful of technique cues explaining as I showed a few repetitions. So assuming a chest press machine I might tell them “Ok, we’re going to set the seat so that the handles are directly in line with your chest.  You’re going to put your hands on the horizontal grips with your elbows up.  You use the foot pedal to bring the weight out to start the set safely.  Bring the handles back to slightly behind your chest before pushing straight out til your arms are straight.  For now keep the weight under control, moving fairly slowly both directions.” Or whatever the cues for the specific movement was.

I’d also at least show them how the machine is set, how I’d note the settings on the workout card (to get them used to reading it themselves) and how to notate weight and repetitions.  I’d also introduce them to breathing although, as noted in Breathing During Weight Training, I didn’t get into many details on the first workout about this, mind you; beginners have enough to worry about. Simply, I cared that they breathed, not how they breathed.  Worrying about inhaling on eccentric and exhaling on the concentric could wait until the second or third workout.

Then I’d have them do a set themselves.  I always went light, most of this was experience in terms of where to start and I always erred on the side of too light.  I know that there are charts with percentage of body weight to start movements at; I never used them and don’t recommend that you do.  They are averages invariably derived from tests on lots of people and during a time when humanity was a lot more active on a day to day basis than it is now.

I’d make a quick tangential note about weight selection here, this is aimed primarily at male trainers working with female clients (of the obese or non-obese variety): Guys, a 45 pound bar is often too heavy to start a woman with.  I know that no male would dare start lighter than this but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a newbie female trainee given a 45 pound bar by a clueless male trainer and get crushed with it.  Especially on the bench press but sometimes on squats as well.  Again, I’m not saying this is universally true.  But it’s more true than I think most trainers realize.

Anyhow, I am of the strongly held opinion that it never hurts to start too light and can hurt a lot to start too heavy.  Remember the goal of the first day: break them in without breaking them.  Every study ever shows that folks make strength gains with as little as 50% of maximum when they are starting out; in your first workout don’t even worry about that.  Just get them through the workout without murdering them.  Ultimately, on top of everything else I was trying to avoid generating any soreness in my beginner trainees if I could avoid it (invariably pecs always got a bit sore no matter how light I started them, I have no idea why).

Starting light has another benefit, one of the “tricks” I mentioned in Part 5 of this series to ensure progress by the second workout.    By starting super light on day 1, I was almost always able to have them increase the weight a little bit at the second workout.  That was along with them feeling much more comfortable in the movement patterns and more confident (this is just from neurologically “learning” to do the movement).

More importantly it was progress that they could usually feel in terms of the movement patterns feeling more comfortable.  Seeing the weight go up from workout 1 to workout 2 didn’t hurt either.  It was all just huge positive reinforcement for the exercise program, showing them that they could   actually do it, not feel horrible at the end of the workout, or be wrecked with soreness and make progress.  Again, this is something that weights can accomplish in a way that cardio just can’t.

Now was it real progress in terms of strength improvements?  Well, yes and no.   Yes in that there is a neural/learning component to lifting that tends to dominate the initial adaptations to training so they were technically “better” at the movement.  But no in the sense that, had I wanted them to, I could have had them go heavier in the first workout so it’s not as if the strength gains were “real”.

That is, most of the “improvement” was a function of my starting so damn light that they couldn’t help but raise the weight.   It may be a trick but the end result was the same; they could see that their efforts from day 1 weren’t “wasted”, as I keep hammering on about, that immediate progress was part of positive reinforcement.  Even if I had to cheat a bit to get it, I wanted them to feel not only success on Day 1 but progress by Day 2.

Anyhow, back to the set.  During that single first set (I never had time to do multiple sets in the first workout and wouldn’t have used them if I had), I’d cue every repetition in some form or fashion.  It might be just cueing range of motion (“Keep lowering til the handles are just behind your pecs”) or speed (“Ok, slow down the lowering”) or whatever.

Depending on the movement in question and the gender of the trainee I’d use touch training to get them aware of the muscles involved (e.g. placing my hands on their mid-back and cueing scapular retraction during rowing, often actively moving their shoulders forwards and back to show them the movement they should be doing).  Be very careful with this:  always ask before you touch and don’t touch inappropriately (e.g. a male trainer cueing a female trainee’s pecs or glutes is looking for a harassment lawsuit).

For some movements, I might lead them through the first few repetitions to show them the movement pattern; this was usually the case for DB exercises which required a bit more coordination than machine stuff.  So if I were teaching a DB bench press, I’d manually follow them through a few reps with my hands holding their wrist moving them through the curved movement; after a few reps of that I might just use my hands to guide them through a few more reps; then I’d let them finish the set on their own.  I might not let them move the weight without some form of guidance until the second workout.

They also got a second mini-lecture during this part of the workout which forced rest breaks between the exercises (which limits fatigue).  Mainly I’d talk about intensity during weight training and what their goals were.  Generally, I’d tell them that the goal was anywhere between 8 and 12 repetitions and to stop if they felt it getting too challenging.  Usually, by selecting the right weight, they always got to 12 the first day.  Not every time but almost always.  If I saw them struggling before that point, I’d have them stop.  They’d always get all 12 reps at the next workout.  Hooray, progress.

I also taught them the basics of a single progression approach emphasizing the need for progressive overload over time to keep improving their strength and fitness; basically I told them to get as many reps as they could get in good form and when they got to 12 easily, that they should go up in weight a little bit (this often meant showing them how to use little plates to increment the weights in smaller jumps than most machines will allow).  I’d tell them that a weight increase would often drop the reps back to 8 (or sometimes less) and to build back up to 12 and then go up again.  Is this an ideal form of progression?  For beginners, I think so.

Oh yeah, since it always came up: this was also often a time for a mini-lecture (always to women) about how lifting weights would not make them all huge and bulky and muscle-ly.  This was actually a place where my being on the smaller/leaner side was of a benefit; big muscular trainers often have clients assume that they will end up looking like them.

But for those women who were all afeared of this I’d point out that “Look, most guys in the gym are trying to get big and musclely and failing, you don’t have the hormones they do so you don’t have to worry about it.  And, even if you are one of those rare exceptions (every female trainee will assure you that she is the one woman in the world who bulks up easily), it’s not as if you’ll wake up overnight and be all huge.  When you’re as strong or as muscular as you need to be, simply stop adding weight to the bar.”

Now, here’s the exact “basic” workout I used with beginners of all sorts. Sure I gave them the “you’ll get an individualized program” speech but, let’s face it, this is basically bullshit.  Beginners all need basically the same thing unless you’re dealing with injuries or whatever and they’ll all basically get the same program.

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Exercise Workout Added
Leg Press* 1
Calf Raise (On Leg Press) 3
Leg Curl 2
Chest Press* 1
Row* 1
Shoulder Press 2
Lat Pulldown 2
Triceps extensions 3
Arm Curl 3
Crunch* 1
Low Back 3

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The numbers in the Workout Added column indicate the workout number I introduced them at.  So everything with a 1 (leg press, chest press, row, crunch) was done at the first workout.  At the second workout, those 4 would be done with the addition of everything with a 2 after it: so the leg curl, shoulder press and lat pulldown and in the order listed (so leg press, leg curl, chest press, row, shoulder press, pulldown, crunch).  At workout 3, I’d add the direct arm work and back extensions.

The exercises with an * after them are sort of the “Big 4” I would emphasize.  I’d make the clients aware that, if they had massively limited time (e.g. only 10 minutes to train), just doing those 4 movements would basically work “everything” since the compound leg and chest/back movements also hit the smaller muscle groups.  I’ll come back to this point below.  You might note that the exercises are ordered to move from larger to smaller and to alternate pushing and pulling movements to help to limit fatigue.

So within 3 workouts, I would move them from 4 movements to a total of 11 with the occasional remedial “Something else” if it were needed (i.e. rotator cuff or some such).  Again, doing 1 set of 8-12 reps/exercise and progressing weights as they were able (E.g. get to 12 reps easily, time to move up).  By the time you factored in teaching and re-cueing things, along with an increase in cardio duration before and/or after, this usually made for a full hour of training and the weight training portion alone can be completed in 30 minutes unless you really dawdle (figure 1 minute per exercise for setup and performance and 1 minute rest and 11 sets should take about 22 minutes).

So within 3 workouts, having started at a very moderate 25-30 minutes or less of training, I’d have them to a full hour of a basic routine and do it without really overwhelming them too heavily.  As above weight routine itself rarely took more than 30 total minutes to complete; as I noted I often moved clients to 30 minutes workouts so long as they were willing to do cardio on their own time.

Before moving on: some of you may question the inclusion of such small muscle group movements as arm work or whatever.  A current macho meme is that direct arm or isolation work is utterly useless for beginning trainees and some even think that carries to all trainees all the time.  To be honest, to a great degree this was a bit of pandering to the client.  Men always want arm work to get buffed and women are concerned with “toning their arms” (especially triceps).  So I put it in to keep them happy as much as anything else.  Sure, we can quibble but there is an element of keeping the client happy which is part of it.  Since it only takes about 2-4 minutes anyhow, it’s no big deal in my mind.

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Cardio Progressions and Variations

So that was the first 3 basic workouts, moving them to what I considered a full hour workout fairly rapidly.   Often they would go off on their own at that point and I had to hope that I’d given them enough information to progress on their own without me.  That was part of the endless mini-lecturing during every workout (many would often hire me again 6 weeks later for a new routine).

But assuming I continued working with them, the focus from that point on was then on progression from that basic workout.   With the cardio, the goal was to first get them to a minimum of 20 minutes continuously at least three times per week, regardless of the pace (I wanted to build volume and frequency before I worried about intensity).  This is sort of the bare minimum to start building any type of aerobic fitness and get any sort of metabolic or physiological effects and I could get most there without too much trouble within a few workouts.  Of course, I always encouraged folks to do more on their own time if they were able or willing.

But that first real goalpost was to hit 20 minutes three times per week consistently.  Which may not seem like much to many reading this but for someone who was unable to complete 5 minutes the first day represents a huge improvement.  More was better but that was the bare minimum I wanted to see.  In some cases, I’d be overseeing the cardio; in others I was only handling weight room stuff and cardio was being done on the client’s own time (either before or after weight training).

Around week 4, clients usually saw the first cardio adaptation where they would invariably report some experience out in the real world where their increased fitness came in handy; even if the initial fat loss was slow in coming this invariably had the benefit of making them realize the benefits of what they were doing (invariably by week 8, measurable fat loss would have occurred).

Around week 4, assuming the client had been getting their consistent cardio in, I’d also usually start introducing them to working a bit harder during the cardio sessions to start introducing them to the concept of progression here.  While it wasn’t formal interval type training, I’d get them to start introducing 30-60 seconds of exercise at an intensity that was above their current comfort zone within their cardio session.

It was a way to start getting them used to working a bit harder as well as pushing their fitness up to the next level.  It also helped to make them aware, or so I hoped, that they couldn’t expect to stay at the same level of training forever and keep seeing progress; at some point they had to push a bit harder and get out of their comfort zone. But I always made sure that they had reached the first goalpost and gotten into good habits with more accomplishable stuff first.

So if they were doing 30 minutes at a moderate pace at this point, I’d have them go 1 minute harder every 5 minutes and push just a little bit above their current comfort level (I’m talking maybe a small bump in treadmill speed or whatever so if they were currently at 3.0 mph comfortably they might bump that to 3.2 or 3.3 or raise the incline or whatever).  Then come back to their previous training intensity and then repeat that multiple times throughout the workout.

And I’d tell them to try to increase the duration of the harder bits gradually while reducing the times at a lower intensity.   So the next workout or the one after that they might go 2 minutes harder every 5 minutes.  Then three minutes.  Then four minutes. Over several workouts, this would eventually have them working the full duration at the higher intensity.   Then they could start the progression again.   And now let’s talk about the elephant in the room: interval training.

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What About Interval Training? (Section Added 2014)

I’ve written extensively on the site about the whole issue of steady state vs. interval training and will try to avoid rehashing most of that here; most of that series really dealt with populations other than the obese beginner so it doesn’t necessarily apply.   As well, a lot of the current data wasn’t available when I originally wrote this series (back in 2010) and I feel as if I should address it here.  I’d refer readers to an excellent overview article first as I’m going to be addressing much of what is discussed there

Simply, an increasing amount of research is showing that, at least over short time periods, short high-intensity interval workouts may generate as good if not better improvements in a number of metabolic parameters (note that most of this research is looking at health parameters, things like insulin sensitivity, etc.) than longer duration steady-state cardio.  Given the time constraints inherent to modern life (most people aren’t going to put hours into cardioing), this would seem to offer a nice alternative to the traditional approach to improving cardiovascular health and metabolic fitness.

Certainly I can’t and won’t disagree with the findings of the studies; the results are there.  However, I still question the reality of getting the typical untrained obese beginner to work at the intensities required to make interval training truly work (most of the studies themselves bring this up within the full paper usually noting that “This intensity is far beyond what we’d expect the typical beginner to be able to do”).

That is, the only way that any of the protocols so far examined are effective is if the folks really push themselves hard.  In my experience and opinion, the typical beginner (obese or otherwise) won’t have the ability nor the willingness to do it.  I mean even look at the Trapp protocol discussed in the article I linked to, warmup to 20 minutes of 8 seconds at maximum with 12 seconds rest.  At maximum.  MAXIMUM.  Athletes who are as driven as they come don’t particularly enjoy maximal interval work; they do it because it’s necessary to achieve their goals.  I simply don’t see the typical obese beginner doing it at all.

At least not initially.  Again, note that italicized word.  Certainly over time, after some basic fitness has been developed and the trainee has learned to push themselves harder, I see no problem with moving towards more formal interval type work to save time and generate better fitness gains.  It might be 8 weeks in and you replace one or two steady state sessions with an interval workout (which would be started submaximally and then increased in intensity on the hard bits).  You might wait until longer than that to bring it in.  Again, that’s a judgement call.

I simply stand by my belief that a basic level of fitness and adherence to the program needs to be developed before you start beating up on people.  I just don’t see bringing people into the gym on day 1 and doing it.   Mind you, people will do it in studies because they have signed up for it (and feel obligated to do it), have researchers yelling at them, and are often getting paid for their involvement.  It’s the same reason the folks on the Biggest Loser put up with Jillian’s shit: with 250k$ on the line, you can put up with a lot.   But that’s not most people in most gyms.

So, yes, intervals have their place.  I simply feel that they aren’t appropriate right off the bat given the overarching goal I’ve been hammering away: break in the obese beginner without breaking them.  Intervals can and should be done at some point, just not in the beginning stages of training.

Ok, so that’s cardio and intervals, how to progress and alter the weight room program?

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Weight Room Progressions and Variations

With the basic routine I presented above, at the time I simply had clients doing a single set of 8-12 repetitions on everything, progressing weight as they were able; typically they’d be performing 11 total sets after the first three workouts.  So when they got to 12 reps fairly easily, I’d have them raise weight a bit.  Depending on the exercise this would often drop the reps back and then the goal was to build back up to 12 over time before increasing again.  Rinse and repeat for as long as they keep making progress.

It’s very simple, very doable, very understandable and simply very effective in the initial stages of training (keep in mind we’re talking here about folks looking at fat loss and general health so their strength goals are much more moderate than someone else).  I’d note that most studies show exactly the same strength gains with 1 set vs 3 in the beginning trainee and, even if 3 sets does generate more strength gains, you have to weigh a doubling or tripling of workout time against the realities of that population and any gains that might occur.  If I can get most or all of the strength gains in 30 minutes as in 60 or more minutes, I’ll stick with the 30 minute program for someone.

And while I started every exercise very light, I’d usually find that my clients would start to push themselves a little bit harder over time simply over their own accord.   This was a very gradual progression and happened a lot as a function of the double progression itself.  Since they usually wanted to get to 12, especially as they got more confident in the performance of the exercises, they’d start pushing themselves a bit harder over time.  They’d want to get to 12 and would push harder to get there even as the weights went up.

My only requirement was that they only did as many reps as they could do in good form.  But in addition, I’d often encourage them to get the next repetition when it looked like they were giving up a bit early.  Just to teach them that they had more in them and could work harder without dying.  Over time this taught them that they could push harder than they thought.   So they’d be at 9 reps or something and starting to struggle, and I’d encourage another rep or two.  They’d accomplish it and stop.  Left to their own devices they might have stopped at 9 but I got them to 11 and they’d start to learn that they were capable of more than they thought.  The next time they’d get to 12, then get to increase the weight, you get the idea.

And over the span of  the first 4-6 weeks of training, they often got to where they working fairly close to their limits without ever having felt particularly overloaded because the increase happened to gradually.   I’d also mention that as the weights got heavier, I’d often start adding a warm-up set first along with another mini-lecture on why it’s necessary, how heavy to make it, etc.  So they might do a quick warm-up set of leg press, chest press, and row (those exercises warm everything smaller up anyhow) at 60-75% of the work weight.

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What I Might Change Now

Readers may recall my mention of glycogen depletion in previous parts of this series and how that enhances full body fat oxidation, insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning and why that’s useful in the obese population.  And this is a place where, were I working heavily with this population again, I might do things a bit differently.

To whit, rather than focusing on progressive overload in that moderate 8-12 repetition range, at least in the first few weeks of training, I’d probably be more likely to increase the repetitions first (to get into the 15-20 repetition range) to increase glycogen depletion; still with that single set.  Then, rather than adding new exercises, I *might* go to multiple sets of the primary ones (or I might add the new exercises and keep the reps higher).

In this type of approach, I’d still suggest starting with a single set of 8-12 reps at that very first workout. Even in a beginner, pushing the reps too high can cause excessive fatigue and soreness which is to be avoided.  But after that first workout, assuming they got all 12 reps, you might push them to 15 reps at the second workout and then 20 at the third workout (the sets should be about 45-60 seconds in total duration so a fairly moderate pace as this is where glycogen will be best depleted).  Then you could use a single progression in that 15-20 repetition range (i.e. get 20 reps, add a bit of weight to bring it down to 15, push up to 20, raise weight).

Alternately, as I mentioned above, you could just get them to 20 reps and then add a second set.  So rather than building up to the full 11 movements over the first week and then maintaining at a single set, trainers might consider sticking with the big 4 (or some combination) of leg press, chest press, row and something for core and start building the sets up, perhaps adding a set per week of 15-20 repetitions, to a maximum of 3-4 sets (this would take you to week 3-4 of training).  I don’t know that one approach is better than another.  It probably all works out the same in the end.

Done for 4 compound exercises (or even lower body, compound push, compound pull), that’s 12-16 sets. With a moderate rest interval, that can be accomplished in 30-40 minutes leaving time for other stuff (warmups, cooldowns, foam rolling, mobility work, etc.).  And built up over the first 3-4 weeks, this will not only start to build the clients work capacity but do a good job of depleting muscle glycogen to enhance full body fat oxidation.  At this point, you could bring reps back down or start adding other exercises.

Combined with a lowering of calories/carbohydrates, this will start to retrain the obese client’s body to use fat for a fuel more effectively as discussed in previous parts of the series; combine with cardio you start to retool skeletal muscle to use fat for fuel more effectively.  All of this adds up to both improved metabolic health and fat loss.

And is effectively what a lot of the metabolic type weight training workouts out there are attempting to accomplish.  I’m simply suggesting building up to it over the first few weeks rather than jumping straight into the full volume and killing people.  And using easily controlled machine movements rather than the complex bodyweight nonsense that I can assure you almost no obese untrained beginner will be able to accomplish.

 

Back to My Original Program

I’d note that, even within the context of my own basic 1 set routine, usually about week 6 or so, I’d typically introduce beginning clients to some new movements.  I might switch out one or two or I might just switch out everything depending on what kind of mood I was in.

So rather than a machine chest press, I’d teach them a DB flat or DB incline press.  Rather than the row machine, they’d get a cable row.  Machine shoulder presses might become a DB overhead press or lateral raises and I might teach a different variant on the pulldown (medium overgrip rather than narrow undergrip).  As much as anything this was to prevent boredom (both theirs and mine), as well it gave them more options for when they were in the gym.  Even two exercises per bodypart gives a lot of possible variation for someone even if you never see them again.

This was also often a time where, if I felt they were ready, I might start to introduce more complex free weight movements.  Once again, this was a case by case basis but assuming they’d made it to the 6 week mark without any major hiccups, they were probably ready to start doing more involved movements both physically and psychologically.  They’ve been nothing but successful for 6 weeks and hopefully are starting to want to do more.

As a trainer, you can always turn this into a positive by explaining “Look, you’ve made so much progress that I think you’re ready for some more complex movements.  You won’t be great at them at first but I know you’ll get it.”  Now what could turn into a disaster comes across as an expression of faith in them.    Additionally, by teaching free weight exercises, the client now has options for when they travel since machines vary from gym to gym.

Now how I approached this could vary.  Sometimes they’d do the original workout one day (to keep working at something they were already skilled at, more positive reinforcement) and do the new movements on a different workout.  So if you have them three times per week consider doing their original workout Monday and Friday and new exercises on Wednesday; effectively sandwiching the new, less skilled movements in between two positive workouts with stuff they’ve already got dialed in.  This way they don’t lose anything they’ve gained on the older movements while they are learning the new ones.

In other cases, often when I had less time, I’d move them to a basic split routine.  This was often useful for 30 minute clients as I could get them doing more movements and sets without running over the time I had for them.  So rather than 11 exercises for one set of a full body routine done every day, I could get them doing multiple sets of 5-6 exercises at each workout.  This was almost always a basic upper/lower+abs type of routine.  This also gave more flexibility during the week since they didn’t have to worry about having a full day off after every full body routine.

In any case I think you get the idea of what I was trying to accomplish here.  The goal as always was to break them in without breaking them and then get them into a nice gradual progression such that by week 4-6 (past the time good habits are starting to get ingrained) they had actually developed some fitness and momentum without ever really breaking them.

By the time they had built their fitness up from a near zero baseline at the start, they were often working far harder than they ever thought possible and had reached that point by week 6 or 8 without ever really feeling overloaded.  They had never walked out of the gym destroyed with fatigue, hopefully never woke up with crippling soreness and never felt miserable.  My goal was to make every workout a success.

Intensifying things a bit at this point is not only a good idea but reasonable from a physiological standpoint; they have the basic fitness to handle it now and should have developed enough confidence from receiving positive reinforcement to be ready for it.  It still needn’t be some major shock to the system, just a gradual increase in the workload (either frequency, volume, intensity or some combination) to get them moving to the next level of fitness and training.  Teach a more complex exercise, add a set or two every few workouts, push them a bit harder.  You can consider dropping reps to 6-8.  There are tons of options.  The key is to always keep the changes gradual and continuous.

If nothing else, it’s crucial to make clients of all sorts understand that progression is the name of the game.   People working at the same level endlessly aren’t getting fitter and usually aren’t getting leaner either (you can see this in any gym anywhere).  Teaching beginner clients about the critical need to progress over time is a key to the educational aspect of being a trainer.   It doesn’t have to be a continuous death-march to higher and higher levels of intensity and volume but over time things do need to progress over time to avoid stagnation.

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Your Specific Situation (Section Added 2014)

Before finishing up, I want to add one last section to this article series which has to do with the approach I used and how it might differ (or not) from what a trainer reading this might do.  I was working predominantly in large crowded, commercial gyms with full equipment set ups (one silly gym had 5, count them 5 complete sets of different machine circuits ranging from Med-Ex to hydraulic shit that never worked), with clients who often didn’t want to be there in the first place, who had been foisted upon me by a sales team who had lied to them about “free personal training” (we offered free initial consultations).  And since I was, and remain, a shitty salesperson, often were only willing to commit to a 3-pack of training sessions.

That, as much as anything, informed my approach to training the client although, given a different set of circumstances, I wouldn’t have changed much in my overall approach in terms of the concept (break them in without breaking them in, gradual increases from a low starting point) although the specifics might be different.

Consider for example two of my close friends, the owners and head trainers at Grassiron Gym in Austin, Tx.  They run a private training facility outfitted predominantly with barbells and powerracks (with additional things like TRX trainers, sandbags, some basic cardio equipment, etc.)  They work with a lot of beginners (including both obese and older trainees) but the nature of their environment is different.

They invariably have their clients for longer periods of time initially, and they are in a controlled environment (unlike the typical commercial gym) where every trainer and trainee is highly supportive of everyone who comes through the door.  So many of the concerns regarding embarrassment, not having the client for long enough to teach more complicated movements to the point of competency aren’t relevant.

And while I know the follow the same basic guidelines I’ve laid out (I trust them; I sent my mother to them the last time she visited), they approach it different in terms of the specifics.  But that’s fine; they have a system that works for them and I know they break in their beginners without breaking them.  They may use bodyweight squats working up to barbell squats or a trap bar DL while I used the leg press but that’s a detail issue.  They do their mobility and roam rolling as part of warm-ups and cool-downs, program basic weight training programs (trust me, you can get a LOT done with only a 40 minute training session), etc.

My point being that your specific situation will inform how you apply (or don’t) the information I’ve blathered on and on about.  My point with this wasn’t ever to say mine was the only approach (in terms of the specifics) to use; I used it mainly to try to illustrate the principles of what I was talking about.  Again, focus on the fundamental principles of what I’m talking about; they always matter more than the specifics details.  Start slowly, try to at least think about the issues that an obese beginner with no movement or exercise background might have that a light motivated trainee might not have to deal with, build up gradually, make sure the client sees nothing but success right off the bat, etc.

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Summing Up

So finally, that would seem to wrap this up.  I know it took me a long time to get to the point and hopefully the information presented in this final piece was worth the wait.  I imagine some readers are wondering about diet, which I only touched on a little bit in previous parts of the series.  Frankly, there’s enough information elsewhere on the site regarding setting up diets and such that I don’t feel the need to rehash it here.

With most beginning clients, I tended to focus more on qualitative changes (e.g. making different food choices) to reduce their caloric intake rather than being on so much of a specific diet; much of this was because most simply weren’t that interested in making wholesale changes to their diet.

Certainly lowering calories and carbohydrates accomplishes some nice things and there is good reason to skew towards a higher protein/higher fat/lower carbohydrate diet in the obese/insulin resistant client.  But often just making some qualitative changes is sufficient to get things started (one thing I always emphasized was getting some protein at every meal).  More details and complications can be introduced as the client is ready for them.

A lot of this was just client dependent and covering that would take another full and overwritten article series.  I sort of touch on this idea in How Detail Oriented Do You Need to Be? basically distinguishing between the type-a ‘all the plumbing diet’ types of folks and those who want small manageable changes.  There are pros and cons to both approaches depending on the specifics of the client and the situation.

And all of this will be a very long lead in to my next video which I’ll get up next week.

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