Personal training can get pretty personal.

When you’re one-on-one with someone, you have more time than you know what to do with. You can test-retest, make up stuff on the fly, and think up new cues that you can use with later clients.

When you have 30 people in a big group, you aren’t doing any of that. sure, you can make up some new cues or whatever, but can’t really see it through like you can when your one-on-one. Do you know if it worked? Too late. It’s time to coach the next person.

Large group training has its difficulties, but it’s also a really efficient way to train certain types of people. If you have people who are out of shape and not in pain, get them in shape in a group. You build camaraderie, forming team through shared suffering. and even if they’re already fit, a group workout is a great way to keep pushing everyone together. Community is one of the best ways to build fitness inertia.

But, if you’ve coached for any length of time, you know that not everyone fits into these simple buckets. I can count on one hand the number of clients I have who don’t have some sort of chronic pain issue that they’re dealing with. I don’t usually recommend that they join these groups, even though and they’re free to take over here at Google and they have some very competent coaches.

Perfection is a myth

One thing that really hung me up in my own training as I was developing was the search for Perfection. I wanted every movement to be perfect. Every plan to accomplish the goal that I wanted to. I want to build strength, so I should lift heavy singles, doubles, and triples, right? Well, spoiler alert, that didn’t work very well. If you only train one thing you neglect the randomness that you need to support that one thing. Powerlifters need to lift heavy to get stronger, but they also need to develop tissue resilience and some semblance of endurance to make it through long reps. This is just one example.

The search for Perfection honed my attention to detail. I think it made me a much better Coach than I otherwise would have been. But I don’t encourage that type of thinking with my clients. I always dismiss any claims that way or address them directly.

“How is my form?” Now there is a tricky question. Some people will take a short, “Looks good!” and be able to end there. Others, though, want you to assure them that they’re not going to hurt themselves.

I’ve seen plenty of people get hurt and doing things that looked really good. I want to illustrate that to them without removing any sense of control that they might have. I want them to feel empowered and like they’re making progress, but I don’t want them looking for some unachievable and, arguably, undesirable goal.

Who needs detailed coaching?

When I see a coach who has more than 8 people and is cueing them all in sentences, I know that coach is going to dislike group training and maybe even coaching overall.

Consistency always beats speed. One of my favorite phrases to get myself away from the perfectionist mindset is “don’t be a hero.” Investing yourself fully has its upsides — and is sometimes 100% necessary — but it’s also the fastest way to burnout. You need to protect yourself. Put on your oxygen mask first. If you can’t continue, then you won’t be able to help others.

I know that half-assed effort from me at regular intervals is going to be more beneficial than blowing someone away, and then ghosting them for a month. I guess “half-assed” isn’t quite accurate, but hopefully you know what I mean.

The “don’t be a hero” mantra helps you decide who needs this detailed coaching. If you can keep a clear mind while coaching, you can notice some details without fully removing yourself from the coaching environment. This is usually my mental sweet spot, the target I aim for when training my groups. As you refine your cues through experience, you’ll get better at selecting clearer messages to send. And you’ll send those messages in fewer words.

Listening to lectures can be fun and helpful at times, but it requires attention. And since you can’t direct your attention to two things at the same time, you — as a coach — have to decide where you want your client’s attention.

To flow or not to flow

Should your client be fixing their movement? Or should they be working out? Should they be pushing themselves? Those are my two basic categories for teaching time.

  1. Teach motor control
  2. Teach fitness

Everything has a learning component. You learn how to squat. You learn how to finish a deadlift with your glutes. You learn how to tolerate exercise-induced nausea. You learn how to be patient through a heavy rep. Motor control tasks require more attention. Fitness requires more hindbrain drive (fight or flight stuff).

I think that being in “flow” should be the desired goal when working on your fitness. It’s you and the weights. You lose track of time. Flow states are immensely pleasurable. I recommend Csikzentmihalyi’s book if you want more.

Discussing a cue breaks flow. Here’s irony for you: I had a client doing deadlifts the other day. When I see someone lifting each rep exactly the same — same positions, same cadence, same breathing rate — I see them in flow. I commented to this particular client, “Look at that! You’re in flow!”

Then he said, “What? What is flow?”

My clever other client says, “Well, you’re not in it anymore.”

The truth is what makes it so funny. Stay away, Lance. I’m getting things done.

Detailed coaching in a group

So when is it okay to break flow? Answer: when you need to change a thought pattern. If someone’s doing something wrong, but not THAT wrong, I will let them go. Finish your set, then we’ll talk about this. I might mention it as soon as they’re done, then go through a more detailed explanation right before they start their next set. They can use that set to think about what they’re doing and practice what I’m trying to teach. I’ll give feedback as soon as possible…

  • “THERE you go. THAT was a good one.”
  • “That is PERFECT.”
  • “Good. Good. That one sucked. That one was better.”

The instant feedback runs an experiment in the time it takes to do one set. Trial and error. Did that work? If yes, keep doing. If no, change something.

This section is very much the “art of coaching”. Does this person care about moving well? If they just want to get fit and don’t really want to work on “movement quality”, then I’m much more lenient. I’ll leave them alone until I think they’re really doing some damage.

These people might get hurt. That’s okay. Pain is normal in life. And it’s a strong driver. The best way to get someone to care about how crappy their push ups are is to make their shoulder hurt when they do push ups.

If the client doesn’t seem to respond to these cues… maybe they seem like they aren’t even listening to you… they aren’t ready. They aren’t ready to change. They aren’t ready to hear your other expertise.

They aren’t ready. I repeat that to myself a lot.

These people need a softer sell from you. I might say, “Hey, nice work today, dude. The hardest thing to teach is how to push yourself, so I’m really glad you already know it. How are you feeling?”

If they say, “Great! That was a fantastic workout!” I won’t say anything.

But they might say, “Feeling pretty good. My shoulder’s been bugging me a little bit, though…” Then you can put on your cape and go fight biomechanical crime.

“You know, I saw some things that I’d like to change. Do you have a minute to go over them?”

The biggest thing you have to do here is set expectations. Working out will HAVE to feel different to them because they’re going to do something different. They need to make change to see progress. “When you do your push ups, you’ll have to go reaaaaally slow to make sure you’re getting the positions right. Just make sure you’re hanging onto those abs and finishing all the way through the push at the top. Does that make sense?”

Put the onus on them. Here’s a challenge for you. Show me what you’re made of.

Summary: How do you teaching breathing to 30 people at once?

Honestly, you can’t. You can instruct basics, but you can’t ensure that anyone makes the progress they need. So what do you do instead?

  1. Start with broad cues. You can easily tell 30 people to “breathe through your nose and pause for a little after you exhale.”
  2. To flow or not to flow. Work 1-on-1 with those who aren’t getting it. Are you working on movement or fitness? Remember that some clients just aren’t ready yet.
  3. Don’t be a hero. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Help them a little today and then do a little more next time.

Show me what you’re made of. Give them the challenge. You are overseeing and providing expertise. They need to be in charge of operations and implementation.

This post was inspired by a question from Dan Hechler.