There are coaches and trainers out there who work with the best of the best, athletically speaking. I am not one of them, and you’re probably not either. The fact of the matter is, as much as we trainers and coaches might dream of working with elite athletes, most of us are probably dealing with average, everyday people with no aspirations of ever being at the top of their class.


And that’s okay. In fact, not only is it okay, but it is rewarding, inspiring, and challenging.


This was the most important lesson I learned during my first experience as a trainer. Every coach remembers his or her first experience getting their noses out of the textbooks and working with real people. For me, that experience was volunteering at a local home for pregnant women who were on the streets or without assistance. I spent a lot of time preparing with the help of my handy textbook, and although I was a little nervous, I thought I had covered all the bases.


I was in for a surprise. After some socializing and a brief talk on the importance of prenatal exercise, we started the workout. One of the first exercises was a ten second plank. I thought ten seconds might be too easy, but boy was I was wrong. Not a single woman in the room could hold a plank for five seconds, let alone ten – and that was on their knees. They moaned and groaned after five bodyweight squats (we were supposed to do twenty). And they weren’t just complaining – they were actually sweating.


These women hadn’t exercised in years. They were completely deconditioned, and with the exception of one woman they were all overweight or obese. This was not what I had envisioned. I improvised and we spent the rest of the designated time walking and stretching, but I left feeling like the whole thing had been a giant flop.


But once again, I was wrong. The next week I went back and was greeted with a room full of the same women, all decked out in their fitness gear. They greeted me warmly and were obviously excited to see me. Our workout was pretty much the same low-key routine as the previous week – lots of mobility work, walking, and stretching – but the energy was high.


One woman - I’ll call her Mary - enjoyed the workouts and always chatted with me after class. She was a mom of four, pregnant with her fifth, and was going back to school to get her GED. She told me how much the previous week had helped her with her pregnancy aches and pains and begged me to keep coming. And I did. We finished off the summer session, and at the end we were still doing the same exercises. My initial goals weren’t realized, but the women enjoyed the class and nobody dropped out, so in the end, I considered it a success.


My experience might have been as a volunteer, but this is the population most paid trainers are working with. In America, statistics say, more than a third of adults are reported to be obese. Only 20% of adults exercise on a regular basis. So what about that other 80%? These are the people who are walking into gyms and looking for help. How do we fit people help, much less relate to them?


I won’t lie – there was a moment during that first class when I was tempted to throw up my hands and chalk those women’s lack of fitness up to laziness and lack of motivation. It’s the same feeling I get sometimes when I see severely obese people loading up their shopping carts with HoHos and salami. Aren’t these people just asking for it? Can’t they take control of their situation and just get back on the hamster wheel?


What I learned that summer is no, they can’t - at least, not on their own. They’re struggling, and they need a guide. They need trainers who are willing to meet them where they are and not look down on their lack of fitness – who understand weakness and struggle because they recognize it in themselves. The truth is, I am no better than that woman who can’t shed her baby weight because she’s addicted to food. I see myself in that client who just can’t stick to her exercise program, or the diet-obsessed skinny girl who can’t get off the scale. Only when I understand and recognize those weaknesses in myself can I help my clients overcome them.


A few weeks after our summer session ended, I saw my friend Mary at a running store. I was going in to get my registration packet for a race that the organization hosts every year. She was also participating and was testing out her new running shoes when we recognized each other. I asked her if she was running the race this year and she said yes. “Are you doing the 5K?” I asked, and her eyes brightened. “Nope, going for the 9K this year,” she said. “I think I might even run most of the way.”


Fellow trainers and coaches, that’s what it’s all about. In the end, the fitness level of your clients isn’t what’s important. Maybe you’ll never train a pro fighter or get your client to the CrossFit Games, but that doesn’t make your work a waste. You might even find the person you wrongly assumed was lazy, unmotivated, and destined to be out of shape becomes your inspiration.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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