High Volume Training for Personal Trainers?

By August 15, 2010 Training Philosophy

Today I wanted to write about a different kind of high volume training. After I finished grad school, I was looking to go in another direction (I used to teach high school math and science) and was seriously considering going to law school. I took the LSAT and began talking to other folks about becoming a lawyer. A lot of people advised me to take on a job as a public defender after I passed the bar so I could fast-forward my experience. They said, “Take on a job as a public defender and you’ll learn more in three years than you would in ten years of taking a job with a regular firm.” This is due to the fact that as a public defender you’d have so many cases thrown at you that it would expose you to incredible amounts of volume and variety.

Obviously, I never went to law school and instead decided to try my hand in the business world (after reading eMyth and Cashflow Quadrant) by opening up my own personal training studio, which I called Lifts. When I opened up, I could have chosen to train one-on-one and charged hefty fees since my facility was in Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale. However, I decided that what was best for my career would be to do group training, charge lower, affordable rates, and train several individuals at a time. Every client had their own routine and every night I’d stay up writing the following day’s workout. I never created “annual plans,” “monthly plans,” “weekly plans,” or used any type of periodization scheme. Every workout was written the night before based on what I saw in their previous workout. This is the essence of cybernetic periodization, auto-regulation, and biofeedback and is the ultimate way to train based on my experience. Although the goal was to keep doing variations of the big lifts, keep moving better, keep getting stronger, and keep getting more conditioned, we always left room to adapt and tinker with the workout based on client feedback as well.

Three months after opening up, I had 55 clients (which was actually our all-time highest). I hired two trainers to help out and together we’d train all the clients. Some times we’d only have one or two clients at Lifts, some hours we’d actually have no clients, and some hours we’d have many clients. Usually from the hours of noon to one, five to six, and six to seven o’clock we’d have anywhere between three and seven clients. I opened up on Saturday for two hours each week and one time we had twelve people show up during the same hour. I want to emphasize that this was not boot-camp style training. Everyone had their own workout. The trainers and I would stay for two hours writing workouts for the following day each night and took program design very seriously. I attribute much of my client’s success to this strategy. Here we are posing for a picture featured in Lifts’ first newsletter.

We would still manage to coach, motivate, and spot all the big lifts like squats, bench press, and deadlifts. We got all of our clients extremely fit and strong (I may be biased but I’ve never seen the type of results we got at Lifts duplicated here locally), and we didn’t have any “systematic training” where everyone did the same thing.

This was one of the best things I could ever have done for my career. In just a few years I believe that I trained around three to four hundred clients. I trained big clients, small clients, tall clients, short clients, athletic clients, unfit beginners, men, women, old, and young. I trained several 300-plus pound women (one of my favorite Lifts stories was when a 350 lb African-American female client, upon doing a set of ten bodyweight hip thrusts off the Skorcher, said, “Oh Lawdy, we goin’ into unchawted territory; we workin’ muscles ain’t neva been worked befo!”), some 120 pound men, several sub-10 yr old kids, plenty of 60-plus year olds, a couple of six-foot-six plus guys, several five foot tall women, people who were incredibly strong and gifted athletically, and people who couldn’t yet do a bodyweight high box squat and could barely step up onto a six inch step. You tend to figure out progression and regression schemes very quickly when exposed to this much variety.

Looking back, this was one of the best decisions I ever made. It fast-forwarded my learning and experience, it exposed me to a ton of variety, it gave me experience with one-on-one training, small group training, and even larger group training. It allowed me to learn how to improve fundamental movement patterns (without ever knowing or using the FMS). It allowed me to learn the differences of training people with unique anthropometries and physiologies. It allowed me to master program design skills. It led to innovation. And it greatly influenced me and helped me become the trainer I am today.

If you are an up-and-coming personal trainer, please consider going with the “high-volume approach” and doing group training. You’ll get much more experience and gain much more knowledge by going this route. This is one of the reasons why strength coaches get so good at coaching; high volume. However, strength coaches on average deal with much more athletic people and don’t have much experience dealing with the seriously unfit population (but they deal with rehab situations). At any rate, I hope this blogpost gives some of my younger readers something to consider.

14 Comments

  • Rog Law says:

    Great advice, Bret. Between my internship and the job I’m at now, I’ve seen everything from elite level athletes to post-rehab elderly patients just looking to stay healthy, and its for sure given me an insight into both worlds.

    The best take away point that I have from being surrounded by athletes and applying it to the general population is that they too can train like athletes while on the path towards their goals, which gives them a sense of pride because 1) they’re doing something similar to those who get PAID to move well, look good, etc and 2) they’re doing something different from everyone else around them.

    I teach a bootcamp class in Saturday’s and instead of sticking to the regularly scheduled program today, since only 2 of them showed up, I wrote each of them a workout to do and they absolutely loved it. Teaching a 45 year old mom how to front squat and push the prowler along side of her daughter = all sorts of win.

    – Rog

  • Mark Young says:

    Great post Bret!

    I think a key point to take from this is that you mentioned that this did not come from running bootcamp style classes. While I believe that bootcamps have their place (okay…I don’t really believe that…very much anyway) they don’t require a trainer to have a great degree of skill. Or at least that is my opinion.

    It sounds like it took me 10 years to acquire the number of training hours you did in a short time. If I had to go back, I’d probably do it your way.

    • Thanks Mark! I agree. That’s not to say I don’t see value in bootcamp classes but I’d be giving my clients homework, making them watch Youtube videos on form, having them practice and do corrective drills, and I’d review certain form concepts before class started. That’s the teacher in me coming out!

  • Cian Lanigan says:

    Yet again, fantastic post Bret.

    This is the approach I fell into when I started training simply as a result of picking up clients at a faster rate than I expected. I never found the time to sit down and plan out yearly training programs so instead I simply made each training program the night before based on the previous session.

    Although the results spoke for themselves I’ve always felt that I “needed” to switch to structured periodization.

    Hearing a true expert in the field not only condone, but also recommend this way of session planning for young trainers is great. You really couldn’t have written this blog at a better time.

    Thanks again.

  • Cliff Keutel says:

    Bret,

    While I can see the high-value side of this coin, I have to wonder if your pre-existing experience and being so well-read before even starting to train clients gave you an edge when going that route.

    I personally would favor a more “linearly periodized” model for gaining coaching experience that starts out with a relatively fixed template for programming (or perhaps a “soft” template, but holding off on programming the day/night before the next session for the time being) and mostly or solely one-on-one training to allow the person to dial in their focus before progressing to working with a more varied population and training in small groups (with a far more customized and regularly adjusted program design- although I think the soft template is still enough and that adjustments on the fly are simple enough to make “in the moment” once a coach has racked up more hours…….this is a bit of a hybrid between truly pre-planned and cybernetic periodization, as opposed to what you were/are doing, which seems to be further toward the cybernetic end of things than what I am suggesting….or perhaps not).

    Simplifying the process as much as possible is the way to go, and I have to think that your extensive personal experience and personal education before training others had accelerated you abilities to far beyond the average person who is working with people for the first time.

    I freely admit that I may be entirely full of crap here and am not saying this to disagree with your perspective (as I have found that there are few things that you comment on in which there is not a heaping helping of ultra-useful insight and wisdom).

    • Cliff, you may be right, but I’m wondering if classic periodization models are the biggest load of crap ever dumped onto strength training. I need to write a blog about this. I’ve never used them since I started training people (at the age of 18). Back then I used a high-volume bodypart split approach and got people strong. We never followed any schemes we just used “instinctive training” and they got bigger and stronger. Then I moved to lower/upper splits and full body training and I always blended progressive overload with biofeedback and each month clients would get way stronger. This may sound cocky, but I’d go toe-to-toe with anyone in the industry as far as getting people strong at raw lifting on the basic lifts goes. Not saying that guys like Tate, Wendler, Pavel, Simmons, Thibs, Cressey, etc. and tons of coaches worldwide who we’ve never heard of aren’t amazing at building strength and causing their clients to pack on muscle, but I’ve trained so many clients locally who trained at high-end gyms and the places that claim to train the best of the best and have the best methods and my clients always say the same thing: “I’ve seen more results in a few weeks with you than I did in eight months with my last trainer.” I don’t think I’m magical, but my methods are top-notch and other trainers usually don’t know what they’re doing. So these trainers would suck with any periodization model because they don’t understand form, progressive overload, auto-regulation, assistance lifts, motivation strategies, etc.

  • Chris says:

    Great post. I think I am going through your experience at the moment.

    Three years of owning my own studio and my thought process, understanding of movement and program design and passion for this field have come light years– all due to practical application.

    With that said, you also knew when to pack it in and move forward with your career and I think there is a lot of intelligence in that decision as well.

    Keep up the good work!

    Chris

    • Thank you Chris! I believe I made the right move too. But I miss my studio so much! If you ever leave your studio you’ll look back on it and realize that it was the best times of your life.

  • Chris Krattiger says:

    Bret,

    I’m sure you have addressed this earlier but why did you decide to close your studio?

    • Chris – A combination of two things. First, my lease expired and the landlord didn’t want to come down on rent even though the plaza was practically vacant due to the poor economy. And second, I wanted to focus on my writing.

  • Bret,
    I love this post. Great and practical advice. Besides having your clients watch the videos on Youtube, how else do you give everyone same amount of attention, to ensure they do the right form, tempo, etc.?

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