In our line of work, we can get all manner of clients coming to us.
In some ways this is awesome.
Your day might start at 6am with 67-year old Mary, who’s recovering from a hip operation, but still crushes it on incline dumbbell presses. You take a break, then train Jeff, a middle-aged dude who’s got one hell of a squat. A few 20 and 30-something guys and girls follow, before finishing your day taking a group of “soccer moms” through their paces with a conditioning circuit.
Having variety is great for keeping work fun and making the time fly, but in other ways it’s scary.
You’re expected to be an expert on everything, from strength and conditioning, to rehab, ante-natal training and powerlifting.
While most of your clients will fit the typical personal training market of men and women aged 30 to 50, who need some help staying accountable, keeping on track and losing a few pounds, occasionally you’ll get someone who throws a spanner in the works.
Like for instance, if you have a client who wants to compete in bodybuilding.
What is Bodybuilding?
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use “bodybuilding” to refer to any kind of physique competition, whether that’s traditional bodybuilding, bikini competitions, figure, fitness, or men’s physique.
There are differences between all of these, but ultimately your goal is to get someone to be extremely lean, and to look muscular and defined on stage.
Bodybuilding vs. Just Getting Lean
You might think that all you need to do to get a client ready to compete is monitor their training and diet until they’re pretty lean, then keep going.
Not the case.
In theory, that is all you’d do, but in reality there’s a lot more to it.
At such low levels of body fat, certain processes occur that makes getting to that next level pretty tough, and it’s not as simple as adding in extra cardio or cutting calories further. Plus, your client will experience some uncomfortable side effects, ranging from a loss of libido, lack of energy, disturbed sleep, a disordered relationship with food, an insatiable hunger and a tendency to get irritable pretty quickly.
Sounds appealing, doesn’t it!?
Your job as a trainer is to get them there as safely and efficiently as possible.
Your Mission, If You Choose to Accept It …
When a client wants to compete, it’s up to you whether you decide to take them on or not.
Through this article, you’ll learn the best practices to help them do so, as well as some of the finer points, but it’s still a lot of responsibility on you. Therefore if you’re not comfortable being in their corner for this one, it’s perfectly acceptable to refer out.
Likewise if you don’t think the client is ready to compete, you should tell them this, and if they’re still insistent on doing so then again, a referral is the best option.
How do you know if they’re ready?
Any competitors should have been consistently training with free weights and been getting stronger for at least 18 months, otherwise they simply won’t have the muscle mass to compete.
They also need to be familiar with tracking macros, and have been logging their food for six months plus. While there are pros and cons and arguments on both sides as to whether clients need to count calories and hit specific macros, with competitions it’s non-negotiable. Therefore, 6 months of solid tracking is a pre-requisite for competing.
Comp Client Considerations
Getting lean enough to compete doesn’t require any crazy tactics.
If you’ve read any bodybuilding magazines, you’ve probably come across people discussing tactics such as water loading, sodium depletion, and sticking to rigid meal plans of nothing more than tilapia, broccoli and brown rice.
None of this is needed.
Your clients need to carry on doing what they’re doing now – tracking their food intake and training hard.
As you go through the process, it’s likely they’ll hit plateaus, at which point, it’s your job to either reduce their calories (with small to moderate cuts in carbohydrates and fats) or increase their activity levels with some added cardio.
This article isn’t designed to talk through the whole process of contest prep, as that’s worthy of a whole dossier in itself, but the special considerations you may want to take into account are:
Give yourself and your client more time than you think they need to allow for any slip ups along the way. A typical prep lasts 12 to 24 weeks, but even if your client is “pretty lean” already, they’ll probably need a good 16 to 20 weeks to get absolutely shredded.
Re-feeds and Diet Breaks
Re-feeds are higher calorie days, while diet breaks are short periods (3 days to 2 weeks) of a higher calorie intake. You’ll probably need to use both of these to prevent metabolic adaptation and increase energy during prep.
Due to the prolonged calorie deficit and the harsh nature of dieting, your client’s strength will drop. This is natural, so don’t try to make their sessions ridiculously challenging.
If you usually see a client once a week in the gym, it might be worth having an extra weekly chat via email or Skype, and letting them send you their food diary, along with bodyweight, measurements and how they’re feeling.
Tanning, posing and peak week are all tricky areas.
You can undoubtedly learn all of this, but two of these three might require referral.
The idea of a peak week is to bring your client in to the show looking the best they can. Keep this simple and low-stress by having them keep things pretty steady and not changing their water or sodium intake, and simply having a high carb day the day before or the day of the show. You can monitor how they respond to carbs during the rest of prep to determine what day you do this on.
Ideally your client will get their tan done at the venue, by a professional tanner. And as for posing, unless you’ve competed before yourself, this is something else you’ll probably want to refer out. Either have them hire an in-person posing coach, or sign up for some Skype sessions.
A lot is made of the peaking process, but the main aspect to consider is that your client needs to just be really, really, REALLY lean. If you’ve done that, you’re 95% of the way there. It’s easy to screw up a peak week by overcomplicating it and trying something new, so avoid temptation and just have your client stay consistent.
Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk
There’s big debate over whether trainers who coach competitors should have competed themselves.
Learning the theory behind comp prep isn’t too difficult at all, so in this respect, even if you haven’t stepped on stage yourself, you’re going to be just fine if you use your head and follow and evidence-based approach. (Check out guys like Layne Norton, Cliff Wilson and 3DMJ for this.)
However, the psychological strain of prep is a different ballgame and something you can only properly advise on if you’ve done it yourself. If you haven’t, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take on prep clients, just that you need to make sure they have a great external support network in place.
Taking the Stage
This ultimately comes down to whether YOU think you can do the absolute best job possible for your client.
If you care, are prepared to do your research, and not just treat competitors as if they’re someone who just comes to you for a workout once or twice a week, you’ll probably do just fine. But at the same time, this is one instance where if you’re not comfortable, the ethical thing to do is refer out. This will work better for you and your client in the long run.
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Mike Samuels is an online coach at HLHL, writer and personal trainer from Southampton, UK. Alongside his coaching work, he loves helping other young coaches build their businesses (both in-person and online.) He has a love of lifting heavy weights, drinking coffee and eating ice cream.