Training The Overweight/ Obese Client

“I Thought You Only Trained Athletes?”

I wish….but not really

Athletes can do ANYTHING and they’re fun to train because of that.

You show them once and they have it down, better than me, stronger than me..

But here’s the fact:

“Until you’re at the top, you better train all types of people, not just the fun ones”- Mike Boyle

If I only trained athletes, I’d be eating Ramen noodles in a cardboard box every night.

The vast majority of my clients are regular people who want to be more awesome.


Eventually, they become super awesome, but at first they’re usually pretty terrible below average physically and this usually includes being somewhat to very overweight AND deconditioned. <——these things usually go together. 

There is some truth to the Fat but Fit thing.

I’ve trained some people who are overweight but can kick the sh@t out of a LOT of skinny desk jockeys.

P.S.- This doesn’t mean being fat is ok….it’s not and still has detrimental health effects.

There are a LOT of Layers To This Cake

Sorry, I’m not going to go into the whole Obesity/ Overweight is a multi-faceted issue that requires physiological and psychological change….

If you’re Obese or very overweight there is, most likely, some type of underlying psychological issue, but I’m a crack head shrink not a psychologist, it’s not my bag baby.


So you gotta figure it out for you.

Nutrition plays a huge role too.

I’m gonna tell you the truth, and you’re not gonna like it.

It’s your fault.

At least part of it.

Like 90%.


Overweight people DO, in fact, in my experience at least, tend to eat like total sh@t really poorly.

Some common themes:

  • Not enough veggies
  • Not enough lean protein
  • Too many snacks/ desserts
  • Liquid calories

If you have nutrition issues, I highly recommend Precision Nutrition. <——I get NOTHING out of this on my end.

For $50, you’ll have ALL the knowledge you need…


However, you still have to implement the changes.

Here’s the thing with nutrition:

It’s gonna be really hard….At First

Sorry, just being honest.

You’re not gonna want to implement a lot of the changes, and it’s gonna be hard to stick to the plan.

Tough Shit.

Grow Up.

Life is Hard, Change is Hard, Get Over It.

Complaining only makes it harder.

Training From Day One

Do me your trainer a favor.

Get a physical from your doctor and the ok to exercise.

A word to trainers:

If the PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) looks like this:


Photo Credit goes to ME…check out my instagram

Run, refer out, you should not train that person.

Send them to a medical professional, you aint fixing that.

It just helps with the CYA, and gives you and the client the confidence that they’re not gonna die..

Cause they’re probably going to want to pretty soon.

First things First: You DO NOT need a fitness assessment.

Fitness professionals:

DO NOT have overweight/ Obese clients do a fitness assessment.

They already know they’re overweight and out of shape.

This is NOT NEWS to them, that’s why they’re here.

And if you’re asking, “how will I know when they’ve made progress” 

You’re a freaking tool bag, go sell insurance.

Day 1: Do a Kinda Sorta Movement Assessment

FMS?……C’mon man..

Overweight/ obese clients are not going to be able to do about half of the tests (Gray actually says this, but folks don’t seem to grasp the concept).


Just do some of the tests, easy things like walking, squatting, maybe an elevated pushup or pushup plank, even a modified turkish getup, but Inline lunge, pushup, hurdle step….aint gonna happen.

Here’s the thing: You need to figure this out FOR YOURSELF really quickly and adjust on the fly.

Don’t set these folks up to fail.

They’re not whiny little babies who can’t deal with failure, no, they just usually suck at physical things.

Especially at things they think they are going to be terrible at.

Don’t feed that story, it’ll become the self-fulfilling prophecy and you’ll lose that person.

Day 2 and Beyond: Rules to Live by

Keep it easy.

There’s no need to kill it day one…or week one for that matter.

The Biggest Loser is a “reality” TV show which should tell you to do the exact opposite from what you see on it.

If someone is going from being fairly inactive to even kinda sorta active for 2 hours a week active, take it slow Johnny, they’re gonna be beat up from even minimal activity.

These people still gotta go to work in the morning.

NO Fails

bench gifEpic Fail

Don’t let them fail on a lift, no one likes to fail.

Here’s the thing if you’re good at something you’ll probably frame the fail as a challenge.

If you suck you will frame it as evidence of your suckyness.

Most very overweight people just plain are not good at physical activity/ challenges.

It just goes with the territory. <—–That’s why they hired you in the first place.

It doesn’t mean forever, just for now.

Don’t give yourself/ clients a reason to feed the, I’m not an active person/ exerciser narrative.

Change the story, change the narrative, one little win at a time.

Lots of Standing Exercises:

Don’t put obese clients on the ground and then ask them to stand up repeatedly.

Keep them standing for as much as possible.

Getting off the ground is VERY difficult when your very overweight and/or reconditioned.

Plus standing burns more calories…

If you’re on the ground stay there for a few movements.

Once they have some work capacity and strength?

Once getting on and off the ground isn’t a scary thought in their mind…..Hell Yes, make them get up off the ground.

But not at first.

Do it and they’ll hate you for it.


Cause getting off the ground is hard and puts people in bad positions while under physical duress when they’re not in shape.

That’s how injuries happen.

Here’s the progression:

  1. Standing
  2. Half Kneeling <——which may not work with knee pain..
  3. Lying on Floor

Plus, most floor based exercises are pretty basic and use only a joint or two and don’t really stress the larger muscle groups to any real extent, which goes to the next section.

Total Body Training:

Don’t waste their time with upper/ lower splits or worse yet body part splits <—-those are so 90’s anyway.

Train the whole body each session (2-4 times a week).

It spreads the stress across the body, more calories burned, more muscle trained.

Focus on the BIG muscle groups.

You ain’t losing 100lbs doing triceps kickbacks.

Self Limiting Exercises For Interval “Cardio”:

Intervals are a good thing.

When used correctly they can teach people what it is to feel awful and can improve their “work capacity”.

The Key is to DO NO HARM, keep people safe.

Thing is: Intervals are uncomfortable and when folks get really uncomfortable they tend to

Fall to Pieces

and that’s when people get hurt…

So, if you’re going to do interval training (and you should once they have a little bit of capacity) things like Battle Ropes, Sled Pushing and Pulling and Farmers walks are all awesome here.

sled pushFrom:

They’re fool-proof, they’re self-limited.

What’s the worst that happens?

I guess you could drop the weight on your toes with Farmers Walks, but I’ve never actually seen that happen.

The point is: you can crank out another rep even when the technique is less than perfect and nothing bad happens.

NO Single Leg Exercises:

Most people really, really need more single leg work.

Obese clients however DO NOT.


It’s just not gonna happen.

Keep them on two legs, pulling and/ or pushing the sled is all the single leg work they need.

I think a decent workout would look something like this…..

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1a) Goblet Squat to Box 3 5 As Needed
1b) Elevated Pushup 3 10 As Needed
2a) Standing X-Row 3 10 As Needed
2b) Front Loaded RDL 3 8 As Needed
3a) Pallof Holds 3 (each way) 1 As Needed
3b) Sled Push (High Handles) 3 2 As Needed


Nothing out of left field,  no standing on a Bosu ball  circus act BS, just good solid strength training done in a way that makes it easy for the client to, move around from exercise to exercise, acclimate to strength training and limit the discomfort and fear associated with it.<——this helps to limit the fear and overreaction during the infamous “Oh SH@T” moment.

Definition: Oh Shit Moment

That moment during an exercise when your brain goes Oh Shit….in beginners this is usually accompanied with a petrified look and a stopping of all action.

Bad, bad things can happen here.

And this moment WILL happen at some point.

So be prepared.

Training/ being an obese or overweight client really isn’t any different that training anyone else in a lot of ways.

Just use your brain and make sure the exercises you do or don’t do set yourself up for success and not failure.

 *Before I get a flood of hate mail, here’s the thing, once these folks gain some fitness (strength, work capacity, flexibility) They really don’t have to follow any of these rules anymore. Train like anyone else. This, if you didn’t catch the drift, was for the BEGINNER…who is very overweight.

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About Roy:

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  1. Diane Coughlin says:

    You nailed this (as you typically do). I was fat, inactive, out of shape, etc. and you practiced with me what you preached in this article. It worked – really well!

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