Home Blog 5 Coaching Tips for Up-and-Coming Fitness Professionals

5 Coaching Tips for Up-and-Coming Fitness Professionals

Written on January 5, 2012 at 7:58 am, by Eric Cressey

I know we have a lot of "rising stars" in the fitness and strength and conditioning communities reading this blog, so I thought I'd throw out some of my top coaching suggestions along these lines.

1. Always coach at 90-degree angles.

You'll never see everything you want to see from a 45-degree angle, so you're better off directly in front and/or to the side of the one performing the exercise.  Imagine what happens when you are coaching deadlift technique, for instance.

From the side, you can observe neutral lumbar-through-cervical spine, whether the athlete is pushing through the heels or toes, and whether the movement is turning into too much of a squat.

From the front, you can watch for hip shifts, knock-knees, turning-out of the toes, and grip width (in the case of the conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift).

From a 45-degree angle, you can see some stuff - but never with as "unobscured" a view as you'd prefer.

2. Never cross your arms.

This is the single-best way to say "Don't talk to me; I'm in a bad mood."  The problem is that you might not even be in a bad mood, but that's the way clients and athletes perceive it.  "Open arms" equals "open to interaction."

3. Don't sit down.

How athletic is this posture?

The only way you could make yourself any more unappealing as a strength coach or personal trainer is to rock a turtleneck like the one the guy in the photo has.  Standing up gives you a better view of the training room and makes you more approachable.

That said, a lot of coaches and trainers may get cranky knees and lower backs from standing on hard training surfaces for hours and hours on-end.  If this is the case, you've got a few ways to break the wear and tear:

a) Demonstrate more exercises - simply getting moving will help things out, especially if you are doing a lot of ground-to-standing transitions

b) Put a foot up on a bench or weight rack here and there - going to single-leg stance can redistribute your weight and give you breaks in the action (while keeping you standing)

c) Play around with footwear and training surface - In a given day, I might coach in two different pairs of shoes and even go barefoot for a bit.  I think our lower extremities like the variety (and I generally feel best in my minimalist footwear or barefoot).  It's also helped me to bounce back and forth between the harder rubber training surface and the softer turf we have at Cressey Sports Performance.

4. Find out whether clients/athletes like "demonstrate" or "describe."

Some people are visual learners; you need to show them what you are asking them to do.  This is especially true among beginners, and those who don't have strong athletic backgrounds (as well as those who are very forgetful).

Other people just need to hear the "what" and a few coaching cues, and they'll go right to it and be successful.  They'll actually be annoyed with you if you slow things down too much and get in their way when they are ready to train.  These are generally the more experienced exercisers who may have already mastered some derivative of the exercise in question (for instance, learning a 1-arm DB Bulgarian Split Squat from Deficit after they've already learned a regular Bulgarian Split Squat).

As an interesting anecdotal aside to this, last year, we had a professional baseball player come to us who had previously trained at a large facility in a group with more than a dozen other players who were all doing the same program off the same dry erase board.  He spent much of his first day with us bad-mouthing the other facility, saying that all they did was "grab-ass" and "stand around," never getting anything done.  After his first session, he made a point of saying how much better he liked our business and training model.  The reason was very apparent: he was a "describe" learner in light of his previous training experience, but he'd been plugged into a "demonstrate" model with a lot of less experienced athletes.  All they did was get in his way.

It's important to identify what kind of learner people are early on in their training with you - but also to appreciate that their learning style may change when they're presented with unfamiliar exercises.

5. Find different ways to demonstrate energy.

Many up-and-coming coaches worry that they aren't "Rah Rah" enough to be successful in this field.  They seem to think that the only way to win people over is to be over-the-top excited all the time.  The truth is, though, that the majority of the most successful people in the industry aren't in-your-face yellers, non-stop clappers, or bouncing-off-the-wall coaches.  Guys like Todd Durkin and Dave Jack who have seemingly endless energy and great coaching ability are actually rare exceptions in our field (and I learn a lot about coaching each time I watch those two).

In reality, a lot of the other high-energy guys I've encountered use that enthusiasm to cover up for a lack of knowledge, and athletes eventually see through it. Plus, it's impossible to be high-energy all the time, so when these individuals are having rough days, they often lose their #1 coaching asset.  You simply can't have bad days as a coach or trainer.

That said, there are a lot of ways to show enthusiasm without yelling all the time.  Having a spring in your step is an extremely valuable asset in a trainer or coach's toolbox.  If you were to watch me at Cressey Sports Performance, I never "amble" around; I always have spring in my step and am getting from Point A to Point B quickly, as it allows me to do more coaching (and interact with more people) in a given hour.

Being excited about what you're coaching is also paramount; tell athletes/clients what it's doing for them and why that's important.

Creating relationships should be a means of building excitement as well.  Ask clients about their backgrounds, how they're doing, and what their goals are.  People get excited and motivated when they find out that you are interested in them.

There are countless other ways to demonstrate energy on a daily basis: picking the right music, clapping your hands, creating competition among athletes, sending emails/Facebook posts/Tweets to athletes before they come in to train, or pairing up certain clients who you know will push each other.  The only limitation is your creativity - and you'll find that it's easier to create energy once you know clients well, as you'll know exactly which buttons to push to get the reaction you seek.

These are just five coaching tips that immediately came to mind when I sat down to write this post this morning, but there are surely hundreds more that warrant attention.  If you're an up-and-coming strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer, above all else, I'd encourage you to get out and observe coaches in the industry. Don't just watch their programming or exercise selection; rather, pay attention to their mannerisms, the flow of the facility, and how their staff carries themselves. You'll realize quickly that there is a lot more to successful coaching than just X and Os.

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30 Responses to “5 Coaching Tips for Up-and-Coming Fitness Professionals”

  1. Niel Says:

    Great tips – I learned about #2 when doing a presentation and it’s almost always a “not to do” when addressing an individual or group.

    Before someone begins a set, I like to ask them to repeat details of the exercise I’ve said. It helps reinforce the finer points and is useful for when they’re in a new setting.

  2. Chad Says:

    I learned #2 from an instructor I had in golf class. Said anytime you cross your arms you’re rejecting what the other person is saying. Would always call people out for it. It has stuck with me every since.

  3. John Says:

    Eric, awesome post! Number 4 is a HUGE nugget. Knowing the type of client you have and how the client learn best is critical. All of the other tips are awesome as well. The coaches attitude, demeanor and body language can really change the whole feel of the facility and the training session. Thanks for the post!

    -Coach Gaglione

  4. Greg R Says:

    Don’t be afraid to use a video camera!

  5. Luke Wilson Says:

    Thanks Eric,
    I’ve found number 5 so true at my current job. I sometimes feel like I’ve built a group of friends and have to remind myself that I’m there to do a job for them and not JUST be there mate.

  6. Conor Says:

    Good tips! I’ve been involved with trying to keep kids motivated in class as an elementary teacher. It’s tough sometimes but sometimes something like a smile or just asking them something about themselves goes a long way to developing a good relationship.

  7. Daniel Aipa Says:

    Great reminders Eric. We always need a reminder on what’s important to use as coaches. Keep up the solid work!

  8. Mark Says:

    Awesome post! Thanks for the insight- for #4, do you think it is appropriate to ask clients how they like to be coached? Or find the challenge of trying to figure it out on your own?

  9. Tim Peirce Says:

    Great post, Eric. I’ve been coaching for over 10 years now and I’ve always recognized that I was the “coaching cue” kind of trainer but never saw it as 1/2 of the story. That explains why the more “trained” clients I had responded better. Thanks.

  10. Jeremey Says:

    #3 is a huge one! I never understand why trainers or coaches sit down while the athletes are busting their ass. I would also add in be on the same level with your clients. If they’re on the ground rolling or doing core exercises, I think communication works better if you’re in the same position rather than just standing up and talking.

  11. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mark – I definitely think that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to ask. It shows that you are interested in getting to know what works best for them.

  12. Emile Jarreau Says:


    Great stuff Eric…newbies coming up need more than just technical expertise in the craft, but “soft skill” development as well to become better the rest.


  13. nathan williams Says:

    Hey EC,

    Great points. Regarding point 3, I always end up sitting/laying beside clients if they are on the floor. I know this is not ‘wrong’ and is a natural mirroring reflex. What are your thoughts on that?

  14. Jini C. Says:

    I agree with Jeremey in regard to sitting…

    It feels awkward and strange to be standing over a client who is foam rolling or stretching. Crouching down works but can get pretty uncomfortable after a while, so sitting might be an exception there… Being on the same level as the client is best whenever possible.

    Great post.

  15. TC Says:

    Hey Eric
    Thanks for sharing your coaching tips. Like Jeremey said, #3 is huge and I could not understand how you can show enthusiasm and interest while coaching the clients.

  16. Alister Pullen Says:

    Just to throw an interesting spanner in the works on point 2. I live in Scotland (born & bred) and we are culturally a little different. We are taught from Primary School that when we are paying attention & sitting in class to cross our arms. (obviously not when we are writing!) And that continues throughout schooling. So much so that when I relax I cross my arms. I was at a lecture by a psychologist & body language expert (he was Australian) and he said Scotland was the only place he knew of where crossed arms actually meant that someone was engaged and paying attention. Crossed arms in Scotland mean “I am relaxed and listening”

  17. eric Says:

    great post! 5 rules that i must admit that i have at one time or another forgotten. hope you dont mind put i posted on my locker so its the first thing i see when i start work.i do ask my athletes alot of questions about there prefernce of energy. some of my athlets prefer me to be quiet. they dont even want to hear me count.others love verbal encouragement.

  18. Jon Kawamoto Says:

    Great post Eric. Cell phone use, looking out the window, not looking interested, not coaching, not caring and sipping on a fancy latte are pet-pieves of mine!

  19. Chris Says:

    So true about the sitting. I remember when I did my first internship at a college S&C program I was sitting down (and this was in between sets of a staff workout, not even a coaching time), and my head coach immediately says “Get up!”. At first I was like WTF?, but he explained we don’t let our athletes do it, so neither should you. So true…being present and always ready to coach/teach is very important & appearance and setting an example means a lot.

  20. Jeremy Says:

    Nice job Eric.
    One I know you’ve mentioned in the past, but that’s worth repeating. Train, and train where you work. Let your clients see you practising what you preach.

  21. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jeremy and Jini – definitely notable exceptions that I totally agree with. Great point.

  22. Lisa Says:

    Hey Eric. Thanks for yet another great post. My biggest pet peeve is when trainers are more focused on whats on the TV at the gym or chatting up someone else while their client is working out. As well, eating while you are training a client is a major no no in my books.

  23. Jeff Johnson Says:

    Another great article. As a behavior modification teacher and restraint instructor to school staff, like not crossing your arms, I emphasize the importance of not putting your hands on your hips as this can make others believe you are upset or in a bad mood.

  24. Jessi Says:

    Great post Eric! I love the idea of different types of learners, and have definitely experienced both types. I had a girl get so upset one time about my “descriptions” and single demonstrations that she said “Why don’t you just DO a full set, beginning to end, so I know what it’s supposed to be like!” Definitely a visual learner 🙂
    Jessi, Peak Performance, NYC

  25. Mike Says:

    Thank you for the post EC! Even for the guys who have done this for awhile it’s good to be reminded of the subtle parts of the job. To expand on #2, I always stay eye level with my clients. Never wanted to be the dominate type and the “Y” generation responds better when they feel like an equal. For #4, during the goal setting portion of my assessment my first question is, “What do you like best about your favorite coach?” If you listen close enough they will tell you how like to be coached.

  26. Gary Says:

    I found that people will follow a coach that they think cares about them and will not steer them wrong in their programing.

    Couple this with a sense of humor, if you have one, and a lack or pretentiousness, and you can be very effective.

  27. Antwan Harris Says:

    I am learning to be well-rounded in my approach to #5 tip that you wrote as one of the tips for up-and-coming fitness professionals. Understanding the client, the time of day, and the type of workout also play a HUGE part in demonstrating energy!!!

  28. Alex Says:

    Eric I think this can help a lot of people out. I am primarily a tennis coach but getting kids athletic is a huge part of tennis. Anyway I have this concept called “the bridge” which is the secret to good coaching in anything. Here is my blog post about it if you care to share. Best – Alex http://home.comcast.net/~slezaktennisenterprises/Slezak_Tennis_Enterprises/Blog/Entries/2013/2/10_The_Bridge.html

  29. Ted Says:

    Agree with every one of these tips 10000%, except the Crossing of the arms. Some of the best coaches and my mentor trainer always cross arms and stare intently on the exercises and form and/or drill. I always thought it was supreme interest and focus, never blocking or rejecting what was going on. And the worst thing by far is the cell phone. That is just plain weak.

  30. Scott Gunter ATC, CSCS Says:

    How many of us were reading #3 and immediately correctly their slouching posture? Great compilation of tips Eric, and they are all very simple small fixes that make a huge difference. A good tip I learned was to never answer with “I don’t know” and leave it at that when prompted withg a question. Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to not know every answer a client asks you or even be qualified to answer some of the inquiries presented to us about related specialties or fields. The best things you can do if you can’t accurately answer something is point them in the right direction of someone who can and engage in the topic of interest and do a little research for yourself. You may end up learning something you hadn’t thought to look into previously and now you’ll have yet another way to “create relationships to build energy” in your facility.


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