The Fallacy Of Programming In Downtown Toronto

Here's a little secret... I don't follow a structured program for all of my clients.

1379265421_5026I work in good old Toronto.

Everyone knows it to have its nice urban blend of ethnicities, and people from all walks of life. When you get to the downtown core, you start to see a bit more of a homogeneous mixture of business types, and right-brained Type-A folks that make the financial hub of Ontario what it is today.

Mark Rippetoe made mention of an important distinction between “training” and “exercise” in a recent article he wrote on Olympic lifting.  In short, training is a regimented approach to encourage the development of motor skills, processes, and movement patterns for long term benefit. It takes a long term effort that’s also consistent to see results.  Exercise, on the other hand, is more for thefeeling of working hard, getting a good sweat, having a “mental release”, and overall enjoyment.  In a nutshell, it’s much less focused than training is.

When a client comes to me, a personal trainer, with the intention of getting in better shape, it’s a question of whether they’ve come to hire me to help train them, or to help them exercise. Albeit, 75 percent of the clients with whom I work in person are middle aged office jockeys, based on my environment. Their minds may be in the right place, but they just don’t have the time to commit to putting in some serious “training”, which would involve sacrificing something along the way. As a result, many end up setting appointments with me for 1 or 2 times per week, with nothing being done solo.

I’m not trying to call anyone out, and I could hand pick dozens of other personal trainers who work right next door who are experiencing the same thing. It’s the nature of the business, and downtown Toronto is a nucleus for hard work, and usually not much more during a weekday morning.  As a product, the 40 and 50somethings don’t leave much room for taking care of self, nor finding “balance” between work and aforementioned self-care. Money’s fun to make – so in ways I can’t blame ‘em.  Add a family, big mortgage, and pressure from the CEO to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for always being on the go.

This brings me to my first point. When one of these folks come to a commercial gym, and sign up for personal training at their preferred once-or-twice-per-week cadence, they’re impressed by their personal trainer, clipboard in hand, recording all of their progress as part of their structured workout program. A pat on the back and a job well done, and zero physical activity (aside from maybe some morning mobility based “homework” until next Tuesday when the two of them can work together again.


For many people, programming is a feel-good myth. When it comes to the group I’ve categorized above, they’re getting into the fitness game for exercise and not to train. Why would I program design (which implies progression and consistency) for someone who wants to work out a maximum of two days per week? Fitness chain gyms pride themselves on creating program design for each client as a way of upholding a standard of excellence for the trainers on their staff. Commendable, but illogical. Program design has to be determined on a case by case basis. The entire lifestyle of the client has to be examined, and a trainer shouldn’t be penalized if he’s not following a specific routine with a given client as part of a periodized program.

A good trainer will be able to realize that any results that are achieved from 1 or 2 days per week of exercise typically have to do with simple anatomical adaptations the body makes to the initial change in lifestyle pattern. There isn’t enough frequency to foster true results, and the same adaptive phase will soon level off.  Granted, it’s the trainer’s job to also do what he can to encourage a higher frequency out of that client, especially if they know the client’s not reliable or competent enough to do solo workouts.

I currently program for about half of the clients with whom I work.  For the other half, it would simply be a waste of time for me to predetermine corrective strategies, specific exercises, and maintenance drills that will just be negated in the 6 days to follow. The real planning in their case starts with simply planning to get in the gym more often. When I hear a Toronto trainer tell me that they have a full roster of 18 non-athlete clients who are ALL coming in 3 days per week to train, plus doing their solo workouts, I call bluff.  I’d also like to learn how to get clients like theirs!  The truth is, in this city, it just doesn’t work that way.

Tough workout, alright. Can't wait to do it again in 2 weeks. 
Tough workout, alright. Can’t wait to do it again in 2 weeks.

I’ve learned as a coach and writer that I’ve got to do a better job of realizing that most clients don’t share the same passion towards training as they do towards other things. Part of that comes from the fact that they’re often not good at it (hence they need coaching), and a much more significant part of it comes from the fact that life happens. They’ve prioritized other things that take precedence in their minds. As a result, the way we as trainers should approach our clients should be with the same open mind, as it were. We consider their lifestyle, make our recommendations, and that’s as far as our reach can allow us to go. It’s now up to them to decide if they want to make changes to improve consistency, effort, or whatever the issue may be. Until then, we shouldn’t feel pressured to professionally ‘step back’ and realize that certain actions would benefit the client no more than if we didn’t take those actions at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to disservice the client – Far from it. More so a transparent, honest system that lays the facts out for the client to consider.  Lifestyle change starts by making a decision, and the ball’s in the clients’ court!

Money spent in personal training for people looking to “exercise” can be deemed a valuable investment in many ways. Some of the clients don’t care about their physical results, and train with a trainer at the gym for an interlude, and to talk about and focus on anything other than work. To them, that’s money well spent. Others just want an ass-kicking hour where by the end of the session they’re lying on the floor in a puddle of sweat. To these guys, that means accomplishment. The perception of value is relative, and we as trainers need to be tactful in suggesting modifications if need be.

My goal would be to eventually have each and every one of my clients on a solid training program that harbours their goal-related results. That would mean they’d be consistent in showing up multiple times weekly, and doing all of their solo workouts too. They’d all be there to “train”, and not to “exercise”.

But hey, training doesn’t make the world go ‘round. Money does. And let’s face it – many of us, me included, would be out of a job if those same Bay Street Brokers didn’t structure their lives around their work, meaning inconsistency in the gym.  So at the end of the day, I’m cool with compromise.

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