Fitness Programing: It's Not One-Size-Fits-All [NYC Guide]
Updated: Feb 7
Last week I had seven personal training clients in my NYC office who could not be more different from one another. And even though this is often the case for me from day to day and week to week, there was something about this week's ‘line-up’ that compelled me to delve into the topic of customized fitness programing.
Mark Greenfield is owner of On Your Mark Sports Massage and Fitness. Mark is a Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Personal Trainer, Corrective Exercise Specialist and Active Release Techniques provider in New York City. He has over 16 years of experience helping clients prevent and recover from many types of pain and sports injuries. His practice is centrally located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
In short, the most important philosophy and strategy that I abide by is that there is no one-size-fits-all exercise program for everyone. This applies to anyone and everyone, from beginners to even elite athletes in the same sport.
Each person is unique. There are just so many factors that shape who we are and what we should do, in exercise and fitness as in life. Some of these unique attributes and factors for fitness include the following:
Level of Motivation
Likes and Preferences
Keep in mind as you read that these factors are not mutually exclusive. There is a lot of overlap and many variables at play when designing an exercise program. So as we go through each with client examples, keep in mind that each category relates to and perhaps depends on the others.
Age isn’t just a number.
It’s also an important indicator of how exercise might affect someone’s health and what their health needs might be. Almost needless to say, a 27 year-old versus someone in their 70s is going to be capable of and interested in so many different things even if they also do share similar interests and goals.
For example, let’s compare two of my clients from that day last week, Robert and Nathan. Robert is 74 years old. He has visual, hearing and balance limitations but he is also very strong, has had limited injuries, is semi-retired and loves to play tennis. Robert has also had heart surgery. Nathan, on the other hand, is a 27 year-old lawyer who sits at a desk, wants to get big and toned but has limited experience, knowledge and confidence when it comes to exercise.
As you can see with these examples, age is not the only differentiating factor. But age is a significant determinant in my choice of exercises and programming. For starters, Nathan has a much higher VO2 max, meaning he can more safely elevate his heart rate to maximum than Robert. As we age, maximum-intensity exercise carries higher cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic risks. This doesn’t mean Robert cannot exercise intensely. But it does mean his intensity should be controlled and observed with more attention and caution than it needs to be for Nathan.
This may go without saying, but client goals determine so much with respect to exercise. A young man such as Nathan who wants to build a lot of muscle and look a certain way means he must do a heavy weight-training and high-intensity interval training program that would be contraindicated for someone like Robert.
Robert wants to feel good, control his weight, stay mobile, manage a history of mild low back pain and maintain firm balance as he struggles with vision and hearing. Nathan, on the other hand, is relatively inexperienced with exercise. He has struggled with weight issues in the past, didn’t really know much about how to exercise and has a lot of trouble with motor control and exercise technique. Therefore his goals at the beginning were in large part to educate and empower himself so that he could not only look a certain way but also have the confidence and knowledge to work out independently.
As a result, Nathan and Robert's workouts last week looked very different. Nathan did a chest day workout that included 40 to 60 pound dumbbell bench press and other focussed exercises with very heavy weight at low repetition and many sets. Robert, on the other hand, cannot do supine bench press, in part because of his heart surgery and in part because his goals don’t require building muscle in his chest. Instead, his workout consisted of full-body exercises done at moderate resistance with a lot of postural, balance and stability exercises.
Injuries / Medical Conditions
This is an area of fitness that gets overlooked way too often because trainers, fitness brands and individuals have their own vision of what a workout should look like or consist of. But the importance of factoring in past/current injuries and one’s medical history should be central to any exercise strategy
Let’s add two of my other clients, Dara and Carol, into the mix. Deena is in her 50s, has painful arthritis in both of her knees and she is a little overweight. But she is also very strong and very motivated. She works out regularly and is determined to stay active. Meanwhile, Carol is in her late 50s, is less consistent with her workouts, is postmenopausal, had a stroke several years back and is not as strong as Dara.
Both Dara and Carol have their strengths and have their limitations. Dara cannot do any squats or lunges due to her arthritis so her lower body workouts look much different than Carol's. Carol can squat, lunge, do step-ups and even low-intensity jumping while Dara can only do low-impact and isometric exercises such as side walks with a band on her ankles, ankle weight exercises and balancing on a bosu ball, half roller or airex pad.
Carol's stroke left her with lopsided strength and sensory awareness on one side of her body. So her workouts are in part very focussed on bridging this gap. In practice this includes doing an extra set of each exercise on her weaker side or adding in more warm-up / activation exercises specifically for that side. Dara, on the other hand, can do much heavier weights than Carol and is in better shape so she can handle higher intensity aerobic exercise in the form of circuit training. Dara also has more stamina and thus her workouts can be longer and more intense while Carol's workouts are shorter and less intense, hopefully just for now.
Body type can be a big factor in exercise program design. For example, a “plus size” client such as Sherryl, another of my clients from that day last week, is very overweight. She has never exercised regularly due to inexperience, self-image and difficulty moving with confidence and ease. Jonathan, on the other hand, is very thin and has always had trouble maintaining muscle mass but is flexible and strong.
One of Sherryl’s main challenges is getting up and down off the floor or on and off a particular fitness machine. In addition, she has trouble doing any jumping, quick movements and core exercises. In addition, she also needs to burn calories in order to lose weight. Jonathan, on the other hand, should not burn too many calories because it will make it harder for him to build muscle so he can feel and look the way he wants to. Jonathan also has no significant movement or orthopedic limitations so he has a lot more exercise options than Sherryl does.
If Jonathan and Sherryl were to embark on the same exercise program, it wouldn’t work out well for either of them. Jonathan would not be able to put on muscle and Sherryl would get frustrated and possibly injured. Therefore it is vital that each of them works out very differently than each other. A one-size-fits-all approach with them just won’t cut it.
A lifelong soccer player and gym enthusiast such as my other client from that day last week, Sebastian, should have an exercise program vastly different than a newbie such as Nathan. Sebastian is an experienced athlete with great body awareness, confidence and strength. His main limitation has been herniated discs in his low back which have caused serious pain and led to inactivity. So he has been returning to exercise under my guidance and supervision cautiously and slowly. Nathan has gone cautiously and slowly as well but for a different reason - that he has very limited experience.
It has taken Sebastian and I about 6 months to rehab his low back through a combination of medical massage and personal training. His sessions consisted primarily of medical massage for the first month in order to get his symptoms under control while slowly adding in basic exercises along the way. Fast forward 5 months and he is doing full-body strength workouts that include agility, balance, speed and stability drills to prepare him for the spring soccer and tennis season.
For the first four months of Nathan’s program, his workouts were much more education-focussed. He needed a lot of help just figuring out how to perform basic exercises such as bench press, push-ups, rowing motions and squatting movements. The process was slow and methodical like Sebastian’s but consisted of very different exercises with a vastly different focus.
Level of Motivation
How determined, persistent and committed are you to exercise and to your health and fitness goals? This is a fundamental question that each person should know for his or herself. Be realistic and honest with yourself. I always ask my clients this question as part of our initial intake and come back to it as often as I need to.
Do you want to lose that weight, look that way or achieve that half-marathon time badly or are you loosely committed?
Have you stopped and started exercise programs repeatedly?
Do you really have time to exercise five days per week or are you setting yourself up to fail?
Do your nutrition choices complement or obstruct your fitness goals?
Do you get enough sleep to have the energy to work out the way you would need to in order to reach your goals?
Do you sit endless hours in front of a computer to the point where your low back may never feel great enough to do the kinds of things you want to do?
These and other questions are vital to ask yourself and for trainers to ask of their clients. Be realistic, set smart and attainable goals, find ways to hold yourself accountable and don’t be afraid to modify your goals if needed.
With that said, motivation isn’t always enough. Dara is perhaps the most motivated of all my clients but her arthritis is a limiting factor. Robert is less motivated but puts in just enough effort and time to get the job done. He just needs more reminders and accountability. Jonathan is highly motivated but stress, travel and work often get in the way.
Nonetheless, level of motivation is vital to understand and work on in order for exercise programing to be successful.
Likes and Preferences
Who says exercise doesn’t have to be fun? Well, a lot of people do! That’s why with all of my clients I make sure to elicit out of them what they enjoy about exercise and specifically what activities and sports they enjoy most. My brother, for example, has never been a gym person. When our parents bought some fitness equipment and hired a personal trainer when we were teenagers, I fell in love with it while he stuck to team sports with his friends. So when I advise him on exercise and injuries he sometimes gets, I am conscious not to give him too many gym-only or resistance exercises that I know he will likely struggle to adhere to.
We all have to do things in life that we don’t particularly enjoy. Exercise in general and various types of exercises or individual exercises in particular are no different. But one of the keys for fitness success, for beginners and advanced alike, is to choose a combination of things you like and a few things you don’t, if necessary.
Sebastian loves soccer and he knows that his workouts with me are not only enjoyable to him but vital for his ability to play soccer without re-injuring his back. Same goes for Robert and his tennis game even though he doesn’t really like working out in the gym, except for having my companionship of course!
Jonathan is an avid hiker and cyclist who does enjoy the gym. Carol doesn’t really like any of it but wants to live pain-free and feel good so she’ll put some time in. Nathan enjoys being in the gym the most so giving him a comprehensive gym program works great, whereas for Robert or Carol, it wouldn’t be helpful. Dana likes doing a combination of many things, as do many of us.
In conclusion, fitness programs for beginners, for those who haven’t exercised in a long time and for those who have new medical or orthopedic limitations should not be a one-size-fits-all approach, nor should it be for athletes across the fitness spectrum. We are all unique in so many ways and our exercise programs should reflect that in comparison to the person in the gym next to you.
Using the factors above to help guide you on your fitness journey will help ensure that you are safe, have fun and succeed. Good luck!!
For more information, exercise videos, articles and a free consultation, you can check out our website at www.onyourmark.nyc and contact us directly with questions..