The Illusion of the Great Workout

The best programs I’ve ever written are the ones that I rarely share with new clients.

The programs aren’t what you’d expect. No special equipment, crazy exercises, or new movements never seen before. Nothing that immediately screams, “This is a great workout.”

It’s usually just 6 to 10 exercises total, spread across 3 to 4 days of lifting. Not much variety, a planned progression, and a few special touches of “Born” methodology tossed in. (A combination of training methods I did not create, but implemented in a way I’ve found to work. This could include some drop sets, 1.5 reps, cluster sets).

It’s not that I don’t want to share these workouts with everyone. After all, depending on the goal, they are the plans that lead to the most fat loss, muscle gained, or strength increases.

But when I’ve shared this approach with new clients a funny thing happens: People quit. They say the workout isn’t personalized. They question the philosophy and complexity, and doubt that anyone could see results for that type of plan.

Even when I explain exactly what I’m doing, I’m met with resistance.

  • This is too easy for me.
  • You don’t know what you’re doing.
  • I think you only know how to program for beginners.
  • This won’t work for my body.

The list of excuses goes on and on.

What’s interesting is these same people see incredible results from the workouts. I recently had someone lose 10 pounds in 4 weeks, yet insist the program wasn’t working.

With exercise and diet there’s an expectation for what will create success. Combine that with an unrealistic belief of how fast you should see results, and irrational frustration byproduct that results in quitting even in the face of improvement.

It’s a problem encountered by many trainers: Because of the Internet, everyone is now an “expert.” If your workouts don’t look better than what they can find online or in the magazines, then there’s the presumption that the workout won’t work or they could do the same thing on their own.

Seeing Is Believing: Which Workout is “Better?”

I want you to consider the following two workouts. I sent out a sample survey to 100 people and asked them which workout was better for gaining strength. (I’ll save you the rep scheme and sets because there’s a 4-6 week progression involved. Normally this stuff is important, but in this case, they aren’t essential to answering this question.)

Plan A

Day 1

1) Snatch-grip deadlift
2) Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat
3a) Dip
3b) Dumbbell row

4) Conditioning

Day 2

1) Front squat

2) Step-up

3a) Barbell push press
3b) Close-grip chin-up

4) Conditioning

Plan B

1A) Bench press

1B) Incline dumbbell press

1C) Dumbbell overhead press

1D) Skull Crusher

1E) Ab wheel rollout


2A) Deadlift

2B) One-arm dumbbell row

2C) Face pull

2D) Lat pulldown

2E) Barbell curl


3A) Squat

3B) Hip thrust

3C) Dumbbell step up

3D) Hanging leg raise

3E) Jump rope

Can you guess which was rated better?

More than 70 percent of people rated workout B as the more effective plan.

The reality: Workout A would be far more effective and realistic for about 99 percent of the population. Especially from a strength perspective. Can I see the extremely rare case when Workout B could maybe, possibly be better? Sure. (Maybe.) But this is the kitchen sink workout. Every exercise in the sun is thrown in. There is no way that I could even imagine doing squats after completing who knows how many sets of 10 other exercises.

Not to mention, workout B looks like it could easily take 3 hours. And any type of planned progression would be nearly impossible to execute.

Remember, the purpose of any workout is results. That’s it. I just want my clients to achieve the goals they set. And it’s a relentless pursuit that has led to a lot of success with my online clients.

Programming: Part Science, Part Psychology

It might upset some, but understanding human psychology and the “fun” factor of fitness is something that must be considered. The majority of people don’t inherently love exercise. If I trusted a coach and they told me to do just 2 exercises to achieve a goal, I’d do it. That’s the point of hiring an expert. You use them to help you achieve your goals. You should feel free to question everything, but you need to trust them at some level.

I mentioned that I rarely am able to share my favorite workouts—at least for my new clients. This is an important lesson for some trainers. As much as I want to stubbornly say, “Either the client gets it or they don’t” that’s a narrow-minded view that would leave too many people without the help that they need. And I’d rather help and make it fun, while removing the preconceived barriers.

Your job is to create a relationship with your clients. Be aware of the questions and hesitations they have, and give them a reason to trust you. That starts with getting them results, but it also might mean making the workouts appear a little sexier (at times) if you notice that the “appearance” of the programs is causing trust issues. [Note: this is something you should assess on a client-by-client basis.]

I firmly believe that you must meet your client where they are. If they trust you from the start, then there’s no need for this. But the moment you see hesitation it’s important that you

1)   Explain your entire philosophy

2)   Make sure they understand why you’re doing what you’re doing

3)   Assess their trust in your approach

The first two steps are paramount, but the third is what will keep you engaged with your client. If you see them wavering, that lack of trust can lead to a problem with execution. So swallow the pride and make it more fun. Throw in some different exercises and progress using your philosophy. Add some vanity work (like curls) to keep people engaged.

Training is part science and part psychology. You need people to buy in to your approach so they can bring intensity, and stay motivated and focused. Your job is to work with people—so your primary focus should always be figuring out how to map your philosophy and skills to their needs

If things aren’t working, don’t blame the client. When you make it about them—and understand what they need—then you can build a stronger relationship with your client. That’s how you build trust and respect, and as much as anything, that will be the cornerstone of your ability to help more people.

After that happens, then it’s on you to continue to deliver great programs and deliver the results.

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