For obese personal training clients, the first few weeks require an extremely high level of care to be exercised by their trainer. In doing so, PTs can minimise risk of injury and increase the likelihood of the client adhering to their new training program.
The personal trainer’s main objective in the early stages of training should be to familiarise the client with the basics of physical activity, and to prepare them for what they will experience during their fitness program as they endeavour to change their lifestyle. Here’s how to get them started in a way that won’t be intimidating or jeopardise their good intentions.
You may be able to tell at a glance whether your client is obese, but it is useful to be aware of what differentiates this definition from that of ‘overweight’.
The most common way of categorising whether a person is considered obese, as opposed to overweight, is by measuring their Body Mass Index (BMI). This is gauged by dividing their weight (kg) by their height (cm). A BMI of 30 and over is considered an indicator of obesity, while 25-29.9 is classed as overweight, 18.5-24.9 as healthy weight range, and below 18.5 as underweight.
The system is not flawless, as it doesn’t differentiate between muscle and fat in terms of weight (and is therefore unsuitable for use in muscle-heavy sportspeople). For the general population, however, it can be a useful indicator of health and lifespan.
Measuring waist circumference is another way of indicating whether a person is at higher risk of obesity-related chronic diseases, and can be used in addition to BMI. A waist circumference of 94cm for men or 80cm for women indicates an increased risk of chronic disease, and a measurement of 102cm for men or 88cm for women indicates greatly increased risk.
There are a number of health conditions that can be associated with long term obesity, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, so establish your client’s health background Ensure that they are effectively screened using a tool such as the Adult Pre-Exercise Screening Tool (updated in 2019) which provides an evidence-based system for identifying and managing health risks of exercise.
The next step is to set a baseline physical activity unique to that client, such as going for a 15-minute walk every night. If they prefer to do another activity they enjoy then, as long as it falls within the S.M.A.R.T framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related), it can be used as a baseline.
Next, help your client understand how the exercise you are engaging them in can be incorporated into their daily life. The 15-minute walk, for example, could replace a current three-minute daily drive to the local newsagents. Doing this will show empathy and help keep your client motivated. It will also help them reconnect with a life they desire, changing their psychological approach to a healthier life in synergy with their positive physiological changes.
To help obese clients acclimatise to the exercise regimen and feel comfortable about engaging in it, you can adopt a couple of different approaches:
You are someone your client admires and looks up to, so lead by example in a way that does not reflect negatively on them. Be wary of your language, as throwaway comments about how easily you can do the exercises that they struggle with can make them feel self-conscious. The aim is to be inspiring and supportive – not intimidating.
Proactively try to anticipate your client’s needs. Always try to look at things through their eyes. Never assume anything. Remember that in addition to physical limitations in relation to certain exercises, an obese client may also experience self-consciousness that affects their comfort in performing particular movements in front of other gym patrons. If you think this could be an issue, be prepared to suggest alternative exercise options or move to a more private area of the gym floor.
If you are training an obese client, consider including this simple diaphragmatic breathing/core awareness and activation drill in their next session. The exercise is performed at a very low intensity, but it is an important skill for your client to learn because heavier people will often breathe in a shallow and ineffective manner. This can impact both their heart rate and their blood pressure. After teaching them how to perform the exercise in a session, assign it as their homework – and then be sure to check on their progress at regular intervals to ensure they are practicing.
Ask your client to perform one set of three to five repetitions of this drill, three times a day.
It’s a simple but deceptively effective exercise that will start to retrain their breathing patterns and core awareness. As a bonus, it will also set the foundation for building core strength and increase their awareness of their transverse abdominis muscles.
It’s important to remember that the client’s training needs will change as their body composition and fitness levels improve. This, in itself, can form a series of wins along their journey, as they graduate from ‘safer’ to more challenging exercises.
Training obese clients can be some of the most rewarding work a personal trainer does. To encourage adherence to their training in the early days, ensure you are empathetic and ease them into this new aspect of their life. Helping someone positively change their life to such a degree is an achievement you will both carry proudly for your entire life.
The Australian Institute of Fitness offers a wide variety of personal training course options. You can choose from: