Running Start Chapter 16 | Programming tips for personal trainers

Here, we’ll take a look at the key points to consider when drafting a fitness program for clients.

Programming tips for personal trainers

It is expository and enlightening.

Let’s dig in!

Without a doubt, one of the most important facets of your job as a personal trainer is devising a workout program for clients.

But just from the get-go, this chapter is not going to get into the technical details of the kinds of exercises you need to include in these programs.

That knowledge you should already have because it’s something you would have covered extensively in your certification.

What I want to cover are several tips when it comes to programming as well as a range of other helpful hints.

These are invaluable to you as a new personal trainer.

That’s because when you start out, transferring that certification knowledge into something practical is often a stumbling block.

It’s something that you need to overcome if you are to produce effective trainer programs for your clients.

But also remember, this is an area in which you will continue to improve as your career goes on.

If there is one thing that I want you to take out of this chapter is that for the regular gym goer, building a complex program is certainly not necessary.

That’s reserved for serious athletes or similar. 

Your programming doesn’t need to be complex to be effective.

And programming far in advance doesn’t factor in everyday life.

Clients are going to miss sessions, they might even miss weeks of training, for example, when they have a child who is ill or they go away on holiday. 

Something is always going to put a spanner in the works when you think too far ahead.

That’s why simple programs that take into account where the client is in their fitness journey are a must.

But of course, you then have the responsibility to continually adjust them as the client progresses.

The 7 top tips when it comes to programming

So let’s get straight into some tips and ideas that can help you right from the start of your career and even with the first-ever program you write for a paying client.

Use as many resources as you can

Your certification covers programming in great detail.

And that’s a good thing but it doesn’t have to be the only resource you use when drawing up exercise programs for each client. 

In fact, the more resources you expose yourself too means that you get to expand your knowledge and that’s a benefit for sure.

You can even use this to your advantage to target specific client types.

For example, you may have a client that wants to take part in a triathlon.

There are plenty of excellent resources when it comes to this type of sport.

Make use of them.

Not only will they have programs that you can build into your existing ideas for your client but your knowledge of triathlon training, the nuts and bolts behind it and the lingo associated with it will improve.

That allows you to connect to the client in a new way and it’s a massive positive as it can be used to your advantage in the gym environment as you train them. 

For example, learn to associate various specific terms and attach them to exercises in your program.

Little things like this can really spur a client on, that’s because you have plugged everything into their goal. 

A word of caution, however.

While literature like this, which is mass-marketed can help, they should never take over your client’s exercise programming. 

Are programming templates the way to go?

Using programming templates is certainly something that personal trainers do make use of.

That said, they are there to guide you should you have a client that’s similar to the one you have trained before. 

You are never going to take the template from one client and just apply it to the next.

That’s doing yourself and the client a huge disservice.

In essence, a template is only the building blocks that you are basing your program on. 

You still need to build it brick by brick based and adjust it for each client.

That adjustment is made according to the assessment and their wants, needs and goals.

When it comes to managing these various templates, I would suggest using personal training software. 

Fitness assessments drive the creation of successful training programs

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Now this is something that you’ve heard all through this course but I am going to tell you again.

The assessment phase of any new client is a crucial part of devising an exercise program for your clients.

That’s true for any new trainer as well as any veteran.

Talk to an experienced trainer and I bet they will back this up, time and time again.

The information that you find out during the assessment, information about the client’s overall fitness and abilities as well as their medical history are crucial for you to be able to devise the best possible exercise program for them. 

Of course, the assessment also involves determining a client’s goals and expectations.

Don’t forget these are the basis for any training program.

A client is going to want to reach their goals.

That’s the measure of success.

An assessment not only gives you the benchmark of a client’s fitness levels but also their medical history which is just as important.

That also plays a critical role in the design of any exercise program. 

Remember all assessments should test in these critical areas:

  • Body composition
  • Movement ability
  • Work capacity

Be prepared to change it up

While you might have devised an incredible plan for your client that’s working well, it always pays to have a backup in mind for every training session.

Remember, clients are human.

While they might be killing it one session, the next time, you could find a client struggling with both exercises and intensity.

And it’s understandable because these are just ordinary people facing the stresses of everyday life. 

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on them for that session.

Change things up, tone it down if need be but make sure that you get them through their exercises, even when they don’t feel up to it. 

Having access to personal training software makes changing things on the fly easy.

Not only are there alternate exercise options at your fingertips but the ability to progress or regress exercises.

That’s helpful in situations like these.

Keeping people motivated even when training is the furthest thing from their mind is part of the art that you need to master as a personal trainer.

And remember, if they didn’t want to be in the gym, they could have just canceled the session, right?

Re-test often

The exercise program that you devise for a client is never going to be the same from day 1 to the time they reach their goal.

As you take them through their program, they are not only able to adapt to the various exercises and the intensity thereof but of course, they get fitter.

And that means they will outgrow the original program when this happens.

That’s why it’s important that you re-test your clients often, especially in terms of their fitness and ability to see where they are in their progression.

It also means that as they do get fitter, you will need to adjust their exercise program to cope with that.

Keep it fun

While you might have come up with what you would consider to an incredible exercise program that’s going to produce results, it still needs to have a fun factor.

People are going to hang around for long if all you do is put them through hell each session.

It’s one thing having someone train with intensity but you don’t want to have them hate it in the long run.

That’s why keeping exercise fun, making a client enjoy themselves over and above the obvious endorphin boost from working out is key.

There are so many ways that you can do this.

Mix up your training location

The great thing about exercise is that it doesn’t have to take place in the gym environment.

Now and again, take your clients outside for a breath of fresh air and some healthy sunshine.

Of course, that means coming up with a varied program that works when exercise machines aren’t around but that’s not too difficult to draw up.

Think push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and crunches, for example.

There is plenty you can have your clients do.

A change of location can help clients when things seem to be getting a little stale.

Note, however, this only really applies if you are a freelance personal trainer.

If you are working at a commercial gym chain, they are not going to let you take your client to train in the local park.

Time it

Another great way to make things a little different is to time your clients and the exercises they do.

So instead of asking for so many reps, see how many of a certain kind of exercise they can do for say 60 seconds.

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Then keep track of their attempts and when you do it again, you can see if they can beat their records.

While they are still doing all the same exercises, you have introduced a whole new dynamic to that that keeps things fresh and fun. 

And it’s easy to track their times.

You could use a stopwatch, a smartwatch or the clock on the wall in the gym.

Each of these has its pros and cons. Let’s take a closer look.

Gym clock

You will find them in every gym you train in, that’s because they are an essential part of exercise.

  • Using the gym clock costs you nothing
  • It’s something your client can see also, you can use that as part of your motivation for example, “See, just 10 seconds left, you can do this!”


  • You can’t start and stop it as you wish like a stopwatch or a smartwatch
  • If you not paying proper attention, it’s easy to lose track of the time



  • Easy to carry, a stopwatch is more basic than a smartwatch but does all you need when it comes to timing client exercises
  • It’s relatively cheap


  • It’s easy to misplace or leave at home



  • Lots of extra functions, far more than a stopwatch or gym clock
  • Together with tracking devices, you could monitor a client’s output while they exercise


  • A smartwatch is by far the most expensive option when it comes to timing devices that you can use in a gym
  • Unless your client knows you are using a smartwatch to time them, they might think you are giving them full attention while you glance at your watch all the time

Broaden the exercise type

There’s not only one way to do a squat, right?

So instead of having your client do three sets of the same type of squat, why not have them attempt three different types of squats with one set of each.

They will be achieving the same results but it won’t be boring or repetitive because you are helping them change things up. 

Make use of a variety of equipment

A gym is filled with such a vast variety of equipment but sadly, we stick with our tried and trusted training methods. 

Rather find ways to incorporate different types of equipment into your client’s training, using everything a gym has to offer.

Again, that cuts the chances of a client feeling like things are getting stale.

Other than that, it also helps to keep things fresh and interesting for you as their trainer. 

I love to use personal training software in situations where I want to use different equipment because it allows you to filter exercises by equipment type.

And that’s pretty useful. 

Improving through practice

Perfecting a program for your clients doesn’t happen overnight.

Even trainers with years of experience in the game will tell you that it takes time. 

What I do know is the more you do it, that’s writing exercise programs for your clients, the better you get at it.

Is it possible to become perfect?

Well, I don’t know, I haven’t reached that stage yet and I am sure most personal trainers will tell you the same thing.

Part of your responsibility as a personal trainer is also something that many overlook.

And that’s making sure your clients can do what you expect them to.

Not only do you want your clients to understand why you are doing each exercise with them but more importantly how each of those exercises can help them towards their goals, both their ultimate goal and their mini-goals along the way. 

In other words, your clients should be learning from you at all times and you should also be continually reinforcing what they are doing and for what reason. 

Key points to consider when designing an exercise program

So now that we have covered several tips that you can use to your advantage when designing an exercise program, let’s look at some key points that drive that design. 

The client is your only starting point

It’s obvious but sometimes personal trainers look straight past the fact that each client is the starting point for the exercise program they wish to design.

We talked earlier about using a one size fits all approach that’s often the downfall of new personal trainers.

By focusing on your every client individually, that’s something you can easily avoid. 

You are going to be guided first and foremost by your client and what it is they hope to achieve by training with you.

For example, is the client an athlete who wants to build their endurance?

Or perhaps they are an amateur powerlifter who needs to up their strength.

What about someone who just wants to lose weight. 

All of these people’s expectations of what you can do for them are very different. 

Determine the exercises that are most likely to help them reach their goals

Now that you’ve considered each client, you need to look at things from an exercise perspective, specifically when it comes to them reaching their goals.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Which exercise types should you be focusing on?
  • How do you implement them in a starter program for your client?
  • How will this progress as they advance?
  • What other exercises can be brought in over time to help them reach their goals?

Once you have done that, then you can base your starting program on those exercises that you see as the most important. 

Don’t forget your client’s goals

Yes, I’m on about them again.

But your client’s goals are a critical part of any exercise program, that’s for sure. 

But now, I am not talking about helping to establish what their goals are because you should already have a pretty good idea of that. 

I am talking about their goals in terms of the exercise you will use in their program to help them succeed.

In a way, it’s linked to both of the points above. 

Consider what the client needs to do to reach their goals

The next important step in your program design process is to focus on the client’s needs.

This isn’t the same as their goals.

Let me explain why.

Take John.

John is 40 years old and wants to get into running.

It’s something his wife does but he hasn’t ever tried it. It’s John’s dream to run a half-marathon with his wife and he would like to do that within a year.

So that’s John’s goal.

In simple terms, it’s your job as a personal trainer to help John reach that goal by building up his endurance and stamina to be able to run a half-marathon. 

But there are a few underlying extras.

For example, John’s a pretty big guy.

In fact, he is carrying around 30 pounds of extra weight.

So John needs to lose weight for him to push himself to build that stamina and endurance that will help him reach his goal.

That need is also going to have to be considered as you build up John through an exercise program that will eventually allow him to run a half-marathon. 

As another example, John might not be overweight but could have terrible mobility in his joints.

That’s another need that will have to be addressed for him to reach his goals.


Designing your first exercise program for a paying customer can be a little scary, that’s for sure.

Don’t doubt yourself, you can do it.

Although in fairness, you probably will have a little giggle when you look back at it a later.

That’s because as we work with more client types and devise exercise programs for them, our theoretical knowledge which comes from your certification gets put into practice.

And you know the adage, “Practice makes perfect” although an exercise program never is perfect, no matter how skilled a personal trainer you are.

If there is one important point that I want you to take away from this chapter, it’s that an exercise program is never finished at the first attempt.

It’s constantly changing.

That’s because your client’s fitness and abilities are also changing each week.

It’s critical to keep that in mind as well. So in summing up, these are the steps that you should follow when devising an exercise program for a client.

  • Determine their goals through active listening
  • Establish the exercise metrics that will help them reach these goals
  • Use these exercise metrics during their fitness assessment
  • Their performance will help to provide the starting point for an exercise program
  • Remember to re-test as the program goes on
  • Adjust it where necessary as their fitness levels improve
  • Repeat until they reach their goal

Don’t forget to take the chapter takeaway quiz to make sure you have a good grasp of everything covered here.

Chapter 16 Takeaway Quiz

Running Start Chap 16

1 / 8

True or false? You only really need to rely on your certification knowledge when it comes to drawing up training programs for your clients.

2 / 8

Which of these drive the creation of a successful training program?

3 / 8

Which of these statements is true? An exercise program should always be _______?

4 / 8

It’s not necessary to re-test a client’s fitness at points in their journey. True or false?

5 / 8

What’s the biggest advantage of using the gym clock to time your clients in a gym instead of a stopwatch or smart watch?

6 / 8

Which of these below is one way to keep training interesting for when a client might be getting a little bored?

7 / 8

The first exercise program you come up with for a client is going to be the most efficient one for them.

8 / 8

True or false? A client's goals, along with exercises that they want to do, are the focal point of any program.

Your score is


Tyler Read

Tyler Read, BSc, CPT. Tyler holds a B.S. in Kinesiology from Sonoma State University and is a certified personal trainer (CPT) with NASM (National Academy of sports medicine), and has over 15 years of experience working as a personal trainer. He is a published author of running start, and a frequent contributing author on Healthline and Eat this, not that.

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