How to Think Like a Trainer at the Gym

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Everyone who steps foot in the gym or works out at home wants to be on a good exercise program that's going to deliver the results they want—quickly. Some people look up workouts on websites, others ask their friends what works for them or and some just throw together a bunch of exercises on their own and hit the gym hoping for the best. 

But what makes a good exercise program? Are you even training the right way? How effective is your combination of strength moves and cardio going to be at delivering the results you desire? These and so many other questions run through the mind of a beginner before embarking upon a fitness journey. Plus, the internet is flooded with information that can be contradicting, confusing and just plain overwhelming.

So, the biggest question is:

How can you think like a personal trainer and build an effective training program that is intelligent, effective and enjoyable?

While there are an infinite number of principles, training methods and philosophies that are used in the health and fitness industry, there are five training pillars that all trainers can agree should be the foundation of any form of fitness and health program. Remember that the number one rule for anyone—trainer or exerciser—is to avoid injury, so be sure to listen to your body and incorporate a dynamic warmup into your routine to maximize the effectiveness of the workout and protect the muscles. With this advice, you can adopt a more targeted approach to the gym and start getting the results you're sweating to achieve.
 

1. Don't Do the Same Exercises or Program as Someone Else


Admit it: We've all been guilty of this at some point. We see someone we admire do something unique in the gym, and the first thing we do is try the same thing. Within reason, giving it a go may introduce something new or helpful to you. But more often than not, this is a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, the fitness industry has been bombarded with flashy, "new" exercises, many of which are not effective at all or incredibly dangerous. This is can also apply to exercise programs that you see everywhere on social media; many are cookie-cutter style programs paired with lackluster coaching. While it can be easy to get swept up in the hype and try every crazy move that crosses your path, it's more important to establish a routine that will challenge your different muscle groups in the right ways. Jumping from this fad to that trendy move could mean you're neglecting muscles that aren't as "popular."

The best thing to do for yourself is to bring it back to the basics and keep your training within your capabilities. If you are confused on where to start or which exercises you should include in your routine, know that any good quality exercise program is going to include all the foundational movement patterns: the squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull and carry.

Regardless of your training goals, including these movements within your exercise program will not only set you up for the most success but will also reduce your risk of injury and maximize performance. In other words, no program is complete without training each one of these movement patterns while remaining pain-free.

While these movement patterns need to be included in every individual's training program, the variations, level of difficulty and when they are applied need to be individualized for you and intelligently sequenced into your training.

Sample Weekly Training Template for Movement Patterns:
(For exercise ideas for each day's movement pattern, click the included link.)

Monday: Hinge/Carry
Tuesday: Push/Pull
Wednesday: Carry (light-moderate to be included with active recovery work)
Thursday: Squat/Lunge
Friday: Push/Pull

2. Ask Yourself: What Is Your "Why" for Every Exercise


When it comes to selecting an exercise to include in your training, you must ask yourself, "Why am I including this specific exercise?"  If you can't clearly determine the reason why you are incorporating an exercise, then you probably shouldn't be doing it at all.

Every single movement or exercise in your training should have a specific purpose and outcome in an exercise program. As stated, exercises are frequently thrown in because someone else was seen doing it or you thought it would work great for you. When this happens, there is no clear reason why it is included, and this can increase the risk of injury while delivering subpar results.
When it comes to determining which exercises you should be including in your training, ask yourself these three questions:
  1. What is my overall training goal?
  2. Will this exercise bring me closer to reaching that goal?
  3. Is the variation of this movement/exercise the most appropriate for me?
Running through this simple criterion will keep you on track with your exercise goals, minimize injury and deliver great results. It will also prevent you from creating a training routine with unnecessary pieces that take away from the effectiveness of the program. A well-developed exercise program delivers the minimal effective dose every training session, meaning you should be training with just the right amount intensity and volume to stimulate a positive change before starting the recovery process. There is no need to beat yourself into submission at the gym to reach your goals. Remember, more is not always better—better is better!

3. Program the Correct Amount of Reps for Your Goal


Once you have determined which exercises you are going to use to train and why, the next variable that needs to be decided is the repetition range for each movement. Establishing what rep ranges you are applying to each exercise will directly affect the training response and/or goal. This is a pivotal aspect of your program design that needs to be chosen correctly to avoid spinning your wheels and wondering why your training isn't very effective.

Rep ranges can be adjusted and programmed in many different fashions, but for the scope of this article, we are going to cover the traditional rep ranges to build a quality training program. As a beginner, you will likely focus on strength and muscular endurance but should be open to other options as you get stronger. If you feel very unfamiliar with weight training, don't be afraid to talk to a personal trainer to get some beginner tips on form and exercise ideas.

Strength: 4-8 reps

No exercise program is complete without some sort of strength training. Strength is the foundation for all types of physical activities and quality of life. Having adequate strength also helps maintain orthopedic health and reduces the likelihood of injury.

When training for strength, the guidelines below should be followed:
  1. Training Intensity and Load:
    1. Novice lifters: Work with an intensity/load that is 60 to 70 percent of your one rep max (1RM).
    2. Advanced lifters: Work with 80 to 100 percent of your 1RM.
  2. Rest periods may vary between one to three minutes depending on intensity/load.
  3. Training Frequency:
    1. Novice to Intermediate: Two to four times per week.
    2. Advanced: Four to six times per week.
Muscular Endurance: 15-25 reps

Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle to exert force against resistance over a longer period of time at the submaximal level. This type of training combines high repetitions with short rest periods. As a result of this method of training, high amounts of metabolic stress are placed upon the body, which imposes the use of lighter loads. This modality of training is often used within group exercise and circuit training bouts.

To apply muscular endurance training to your workout, follow these guidelines:
  1. Work with 65 to 75 percent of your 1RM.
  2. Rest periods are less than 30 seconds.
  3. Training Frequency:
    1. Novice to Intermediate: Two to four times per week
    2. Advanced: Four to six times per week.
Power: 1-4 reps

Training for power is about the ability to exert force as quickly as possible, making it most ideal for athletes who want to use strength in short bursts. Football players, sprinters and Olympic weightlifters are the individuals who commonly train in these rep ranges.

If you are looking to train in these rep ranges to increase power and athletic performance, use these training principles for this specific type of training:
  1. Work with an intensity/load that is 80 to 85 percent of your 1RM, performing each repetition as quickly as possible. 
  2. Rest two to four minutes between sets.
  3. Work each movement two to four times per week, depending on your recovery and training experience.
Hypertrophy: 8-15 reps

When training for hypertrophy, the goal is to maximize muscle size. Think of all those times you said you wanted to build bigger biceps, create that armor-looking chest or shape up those glutes. This is the most common method of training amongst the population because it helps shape the muscles and get you looking good for the beach.

When looking to improve your muscle size, follow these recommendations:
  1. Training Intensity/Load:
    1. Work with 65 to 85 percent of 1RM.
  2. Rest period may vary between 30 to 90 seconds.
  3. Training Frequency:
    1. Novice to intermediate: Two to four times per week.
    2. Advanced: Four to six times per week.

4. Prioritize Recovery


No matter how perfectly designed your training program looks on paper or how much effort you put into your training, your results are dependent on how well you can recover and manage stressors placed on the body.  Whether it is mental, emotional or physical stress from work, life or training, stress does influence the human body.

One fact is plain and simple when it comes to recovery: You cannot out train or out eat poor lifestyle habits. To simultaneously maximize your results and training longevity, it is imperative that you honestly take a look at what you can enhance outside of the gym. Look at how you can improve sleep, better your dietary habits or minimize emotional stress. More often than not, identifying and making positive changes in these areas are the missing link people need to get the results they desire.

Once you have successfully managed those external factors, the next step is to include recovery strategies post workout. Upon completion of your last repetition, the recovery process needs to take place. To accelerate recovery immediately after your workout, follow this simple recovery process:
 
  1. Low-intensity steady state cardio for 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Foam rolling with a focus on large muscle groups. You should roll out from distal (areas away from the center of the body) to proximal (areas closer to the center body).
  3. Total body stretching
  4. Mobility drills to emphasize weak areas that are lacking adequate mobility.

Following this recovery process after each workout will help regulate the central nervous system after hitting it hard during the training session. Each phase during this recovery structure will assist in improving circulation as well as lowering heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. Furthermore, moving through the foam rolling work, stretching and mobility drills will help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, maintain the muscles elastic properties and appropriate muscle tissue length.
 

5. Assess Your Workout


You trained hard, the workout is complete and you have gone through the recovery process. Now what do you do? Assess!

A good trainer is always assessing and considering what could be better to deliver the best possible outcome. After you get home, clean up and have a nutritious post-workout meal, take the time to sit down with a notebook and assess what worked well and what could be improved upon to deliver a better training session the next time around.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if your workout was properly programmed:
  1. Did the workout itself or any one exercise cause any pain?
  2. How do I feel after the workout? Am I beat up or feeling great and ready to take on the day?
  3. Could I have used a better variation for a certain exercise?
  4. Is this workout sustainable to repeatedly train on for weeks at a time?
  5. Will the training principals and exercise I chose bring me closer to my goal?
  6. Did I enjoy my training?
Trainers eat, sleep and breath exercise, and are always looking for new ways to challenge their muscles and improve their health. Learning to think like a trainer can take your training from disorganized to structured and goal-oriented so you can become the best version of you.
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Member Comments

I found this to most helpful and informative. Report
As a pro trainer for over 20 years, there is excellent advice here. Incorporating proper rest is key! Report
We all have trainer minds, however, we just don't capitalize on it, just like motivation. It's good to know how we should be thinking to get us where we need to be. As always, thank you, SparkFriends. Report
GREAT guidelines! Report
GREAT ARTICLE!!!! I used to train hard, then life got in the way, back at it and so glad I read this article! Report
Lots of helpful information. Will rest more between sets. Thanks much. Report
thanks Report
Good to know. Might change it up a bit. Report
These are very helpful tips. Thank you! Report
Very informative! Report
Great info! Report
Good to know information, Thanks! Report
What a great article, thank you. It is hard for me to grasp the notion that I need to think like a trainer, yet I understand I honestly need to. Keep in mind, I’m not one, I don’t wish to be one...yet my fitness level and training has reached a point where I seriously need to give consideration to the key points mentioned in the article. I workout exclusively at home doing workouts created by trainers five days a week. For my own personal growth, I need to consider more than just what I feel like doing on any given day. This article is an amazing resource, I know I’ll refer to it often. Again, thank you. Report
Great information. Report
Thanks! Report


 

About The Author

Timothy Danchak
Timothy Danchak
Tim is a strength coach, wellness instructor and functional training specialist in North Carolina. His primary focus is working with general and special populations to regain proper movement mechanics and improve total body strength. Tim's passion is focused on enhancing overall quality of life and pain-free performance for his clients.
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