Training the Overweight Client

Jul 25, 2022

Posted October 25th 2010

Training obese clients represents a series of truly unique challenges. Within these challenges lie great business prospects and opportunities to change lives'. However, to succeed trainers need to put a large amount of thought into the process of dealing with an overweight client. Unfortunately as Ben Franklin noted "common sense is not very common". We constantly see trainers making recommendations for overweight clients that are both dangerous and foolish.

Luckily, as in so many situations, if you look for the answers, they become obvious. If trainers simply copy the foolishness they see on TV they are only going to make mistakes, injure clients and lose clients. The people that produce shows like The Biggest Loser are a huge part of the problem. What is done to the poor people on the show in the name of health and fitness borders on criminal negligence. The worst part is that current and future trainers watch the show and think that abusing and belittling clients actually works.

The truth is exactly the opposite. In the real world psychology is job one when taking on an overweight client. Overweight clients are conditioned to fail. You have to remind yourself that this will probably not be the first time this client has attempted to lose weight or to change their diet. The real key to success in any endeavor is to realize that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care! Belittling and embarrassing a client may make for good TV but, don't try it with clients who are paying you.

If you want to succeed with your overweight clients you must be willing to become the biggest part of their support structure. Daily emails, texts and or phone calls will be essential to insure compliance and encourage continued participation. Very often your relationship with the client may be the only thing that prevents them from giving up.

Don't Worry, be Crappy

Want to learn how to train an obese person? Train one. Everyone is too afraid to make a mistake. However, if you make a mistake make a conservative mistake, not a foolish, Biggest Loser mistake. Think ready, fire, aim but, aim a little low with an obese client instead of a little high. I love "don't worry be crappy" and "ready, fire, aim". I learn well on my feet. Just remember to use your common sense and keep it simple. These are not athletes. I have said numerous times that the best way to learn to train overweight clients is to do it. Everything I'm writing in this article I learned from training an overweight client. In my case my client Hank Morse was able to lose 125 lbs. in about six months. Nothing fancy, just common sense.

Why Are People Overweight?

I have done a lot of research and have come to a simple conclusion. Overweight people generally eat too much. I know this sounds like an oversimplification but a little reality therapy can be good. It's usually not glands, and it may be genetics, but most often it is the over-consumption of food. You will not succeed with overweight clients if they do not change their diet. I have adopted a very simple approach to nutrition. I think nutrition is easy, compliance is hard. Science is beginning to agree. A recent study said that simple nutrition information encourages compliance.

Mike Boyle's Nutritional Guidelines

• If you've already met one of these high carb- low fat registered dieticians, run away. High carb- low fat has done two things. One is make us fatter. The other is make us rename adult onset diabetes. It's now Type 2 because kids get it. Kids get it because of the absolute failure of the high-carb low-fat concept.

• Avoid grain like it's poison. If you just try to cut all corn and corn products out you will be going a long way toward improving your nutrition. Just look at the label. If one of the first two ingredients is corn or high fructose corn syrup, skip it. Grains are the root of all fat evil. Please note, corn is a grain, not a vegetable. It is also the number one calorie source in America. Worse than corn is the dreaded high fructose corn syrup. It's in everything and it's bad for you. I know I will probably get hate mail from farmers in Iowa but, if you want to lose weight try to cut out all grains. Yes, I know grain is considered an essential by many, I'm just not one of them. You can plenty of carbs without grain.

• In fact, tell your clients to act like they have a grain allergy. I tell people now that grains make you break out in big lumps all over you body. The lumps are most often found on your rear end and stomach but can appear anywhere.

• Read Michael Pollan's Food Rules. It is as simple as it gets. "Eat food, mostly plants, not too much."

• To Pollan's rules I would add eat more protein. So the Boyle interpretation is "eat food mostly plants and animal products, not too much." Protein is satiating. Think protein at every feeding. While you are at it, forget the term meal. Think 5-6 small feedings a day. Stop using the word meal. When an overweight person hears the term meal they have an entirely different thought process than you or I. We want clients to think about small feedings in the 300 calorie range, not meals.

• Supplement your fats. I know many of you may be confused. Our fat ratios are all screwed up. You need to take a fish oil supplement every day to try to increase the amount of good fat in the systems. Buy good fish oil, preferably Krill Oil. Good brands include ProGrade, Mercola and Nordic Naturals.

Training the Overweight Client

The advice for training the obese client is much like the advice on nutrition. First forget what you know. Remember that these are not athletes. When I began my ready-fire-aim process of training 375 lb. Hank Morse I had an idea in my head. I'd simply take 375 lb Hank and train him like one of my athletes. It was not until I was on the gym floor with Hank getting ready for our first day that I realized what an absolute fool I was. Talk about lack of common sense. As I began the workout I realized that my standard warm-up procedure was not going to work.

Things I Don't Do With Overweight Clients ( But Thought I Would)

• Foam rolling
• Stretching
• Core work
• Single leg work

I know what many of you who are reading this are saying. "Mike these are the basic building blocks of your programs". Amazingly, you are right. However, we need to be able to adapt to the needs of our clients, not vice versa. As I always say, I'm not married to any concept. Foam rolling for an overweight client is like working out. I think the effort needed to foam roll can seriously detract from the actual workout. Besides, just the process of getting up and down from the ground adds to the difficulty and embarrassment factor. One thing I realized quickly after watching how difficult it was for Hank to get up or down from he floor was that I wanted to minimize the number of times we got up or down from the floor.

Static Stretching? Same idea. Overweight clients are generally not nimble ballerinas. It can be a huge amount of work (no pun intended) just trying to get an overweight client in position to stretch. Never mind what happens if the client loses balance and falls. The truth is beginning with stretching and rolling can make a client feel awkward and like a failure from the get-go. I want success. I want to make it easy to warm-up.

The same goes for core work. More prescription for failure. Core work for the overweight client should initially be a by-product of exercise choices rather than direct. Planks etc. can be extremely difficult for heavy clients. Remember in many of our basic functional exercises the resistance is bodyweight. For a 375 lb client this is a detriment verses a benefit.

Last but, certainly not least, single leg work. Again a basic building block of our programs fails the common sense test. The first thing an obese client needs to do is learn to squat on two legs and, handle his or her bodyweight. I want to throw myself out the window when I see the things they do on The Biggest Loser. I'm worried about doing a proper squat and they have these people running sprints and doing box jumps.

Developing Confidence

Obese clients need to be confident that you won't hurt them and confident that they won't hurt themselves. Proper exercise choices will increase confidence. Fancy things like single leg exercises should come much later. Remember, with overweight clients there is a huge psychological component. It's like hooking a big fish ( no pun intended). You need to keep it on the line. How do we develop this confidence, by encouraging success. Avoid floor exercises. Getting up and down from the floor is hard work for an overweight client.

Breaking the Warm-up Rule

I have always said that a walking warmup was like stealing money from a client. However it's OK for an overweight client to walk for 5 minutes to warm-up. I think a client in a normal weight range should begin every workout with foam rolling, stretching and a dynamic warm-up but an overweight client will be fine just walking. From there you can progress to simple standing warm-up exercises like mini-band walks, band pull-aparts and med ball circuits. For med ball circuits it's more rule busting and improper progressions. When we do our med ball work with our overweight clients we start standing and stay standing.

Designing the Strength Workout for the Obese Client

The primary goal for an overweight client is to keep them moving for an hour. This means that the strength routine should consist of mini circuits of four exercises. Each circuit should consist of:

• A push- modified pushup, pushup, band press
• A knee dominant exercise- bench squats or box squats. ROM first, resistance second
• A pull- band row, pulldowns
• A hip dominant - 2 leg bridge

The circuits don't need to be done fast. Start with one circuit of ten reps each and add one per day. Work up to four circuits. Let the client determine the pace in the beginning but, stay with the goal of keeping them moving for an hour. The first few workouts may take less time. Overweight clients may not be able to handle an hour of activity but, have that as your goal. If the client finishes early, simply set the treadmill and allow them to walk for the remainder of the hour .


Helping my friend Hank lose over 100 lbs was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. It was life changing for Hank and life changing for me. An overweight person has to ready to become a client. If an overweight friend reaches out to you because they know you are in the fitness field, jump on the opportunity. What you will learn will improve their life and, will improve your own. The one good thing shows like The Biggest Loser have done is empower overweight clients to believe they can lose weight. Our job is to help them do it correctly and most important to keep the weight off.