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Tips for training an overweight or obese client

August 22, 2013

When writing this post I geared it more towards fellow trainers, as I have had quite a bit of personal experience training overweight and obese clients and getting them good results, and I thought other trainers might find some of my tips helpful.

However, if you are an overweight person yourself or even just a complete gym newbie; if you are weak and de-conditioned; or if you've just joined a gym to get fit and lose some weight, but you are finding the gym and training environment somewhat intimidating, and really don’t know where to start, you might find this post useful yourself.

Alternatively, you might be someone who is trying to encourage an overweight (or weak, de-conditioned, inexperienced) friend or family member to join a gym or train with you at a gym and you are struggling with knowing where to start or how to help them, this post might also be helpful for you.

First and foremost: Make sure their nutrition is covered!

I know there are all sorts of factors that weigh in when it comes to someone who is obese or overweight, but it is common knowledge that at the end of the day, overweight people generally eat too much. I know this sounds like an oversimplification, but a reality check can be good sometimes. Their weight problems may be related to medical conditions (although many times the medical conditions are a development from being overweight); it may be genetics, and some people will definitely have a harder time at weight loss than others, but in all honesty, and without pulling any punches, most often it is the over-consumption of food.

You will not succeed with overweight clients if they do not change their diet. I use a very simple approach when it comes to nutrition with most of my fat loss clients, making only change per week or couple of weeks at a time. Putting together a diet plan for them is the simple part. It’s putting it into action and being consistent with it that they find hard. Giving them a simple nutrition plan, without making too many changes at once, encourages compliance.

Give them a comfortable training environment:

I find a large space the best for training an overweight client (ideally a place somewhat closed off from the rest of the gym, i.e. an empty group exercise room,  or you can take them outdoors if there is a nice big outdoor area outside the gym.) The wide open space helps give the client ample room to move around and not be limited by small movements. It also decreases the risk of dealing with awkward small spaces, running into things, tripping or feeling unsafe. Also having their own space offers them a degree of comfort that they wouldn’t have in a large, bright, intimidating gym setting.

When your client starts to feel comfortable with you and with their surroundings they’ll be more inclined to stay with you and keep coming back for training. It’s also easier for them to do bodyweight exercises and basic exercises without feeling self-conscious about body image.

Stick to big compound movements and avoid machines:

Most machines are not made for an obese person and the weight of sitting on some machines may not be safe for your client, or it may be awkward/tight for them to get in and out of and make them feel uncomfortable. For these reasons, it’s important to pick your exercises wisely.  Some machines will be fine, but I've found from experience that many of the obese clients I have trained don't fit on many of the gym machines, don't fit on most stationary bikes (although recumbent bikes can be okay), so it's good to be mindful of that.

There’s also not really any need to give an obese or overweight person isolation exercises. Things like bicep curls or leg extensions aren’t really going to do much in terms of changing their body shape or helping burn fat. They need simple compound movements to get the most bang for their buck and to really get things moving and working properly.

Some examples:

-Squats (some good variations: box squats, wall squats or squats to a box).

-Step ups (start with a very low step and just their body weight).

-Deadlifts (you can start with a KB deadlifts)

-Farmers carry (with kettlebells or dumbbells)

-Overhead press (if they have decent shoulder mobility, and you can do these seated).

-Elevated push ups. (I usually start them against a wall and then slowly move down lower, i.e. using the power rack, then a bench, etc. as they progress.)

-Standing cable (or sitting) rowing movements

-Cable rotation work and core work, i.e. woodchop, palof press etc.

Proper exercise choices will increase confidence. Fancy things like single leg exercises should come much later.

Avoid having them lie down for “ab work” or “core work”

Sometimes we don’t realise how difficult it is for an overweight or obese person to fit into things, like an exercise machine, or easily get up and down off a mat on the floor. A very big person will most likely not be able to lie on a bench or get up from a lying position very easily.

Because of this I tend to avoid floor exercises. Getting up and down from the floor can be extremely awkward for an overweight client.

Stay away from high-impact exercises for cardio:

Another thing I tend to avoid fast moving high impact exercises. Very overweight people tend to be a lot less stable and they are usually very injury-prone. Stick to things like: prowler/sled pushes and pulls, battle ropes, farmers carry, fast walking uphill, boxing, etc. for extra cardio and conditioning.

Other things I don’t do much of when someone has a lot of weight to lose still:

-Stretching
-Direct ab/core work
-Single leg work
-Foam rolling

These things are all good, but not optimal for weight loss when it comes to a very overweight person. Stick to the basics, which brings me to my next point:

Circuits are AWESOME:

My primary goal for an overweight client is to keep them moving, and preferably on their feet, for an hour (or however long you have them for). This often means that my training routines for them consist of mini circuits with five-six exercises. I generally make sure each circuit consist of:

-A pulling exercise

-A pushing exercise

-A squat variation

-A hip hinge variation

-Then I usually end each round with some form of metabolic conditioning or a dynamic drill, such as high knee walks, farmers carry, air dyne or bike for a certain distance, 2 minutes of boxing etc.

Here is a sample training session I did last week with a very overweight female client who also has some knee and hip problems, which we are working on.

Warm up: Walk on treadmill for 5-10 minutes, slight incline.

Circuit. 4 Rounds, 2 minutes rest between each round:
-Squats to a box x 10 (Click here for a demo: Squats to a box)
-Elevated push ups x 10 (Click here for a demo: Elevated push ups)
-KB deadlifts x 10 (Click here for a demo: Kettlebell deadlifts)
-Standing cable rows x 10 (Click here for a demo: Standing cable rows)
-Cable Pallof Press (Click here for a demo: Pallof press)
-Overhead med ball slams (Click here for a demo: Med ball slams)
-2 minutes rest.

Most importantly, when training obese clients, remember to use common sense and keep things simple and basic. They don’t need new gimmicks or machines. They don’t need that much variety either initially. What they do need is constant movement, dietary guidance, motivation, and challenging but doable training sessions.

And don't forget with your clients (no matter who they are or what they weigh) they need to be motivated by internal goals. Success will never be achieved if they are doing it for someone else, i.e. a demanding partner. If your client does not place a high level of intrinsic importance on a particular goal, the likelihood of achieving it is pretty small. Try to find out where their motivation lies and use that to help them achieve their goals.

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