Strength Training

When Should My Client Try to Gain Muscle Mass?

When Should My Client Try to Gain Muscle Mass?

There are many different objectives clients will have when they come to you seeking your services as a personal trainer. Some people are looking to lose weight and look better, others to become more toned and defined, and others are looking to accomplish a goal, like getting through an obstacle course race.

True enough, one extremely common desire you’ll find among new clients is that they want to get bigger. They want to look like the people they see in movies and TV shows. And understandably so—who wouldn’t want to look like Luke Cage or Thor? Media portrayals have probably the most to do with this phenomenon rising, especially in the age of action film stars like Arnold Schwarzennager, Mr. T, and Sylvester Stallone who kicked off the trends in the late 70s and early 80s.

One of the issues, though, is that it isn’t the ideal for just any body type. In fact, you often find this request among people who are trying to change their body type to the degree they are able. The question with this isn’t so much should they gain lean muscle mass (everyone should have more lean muscle than fat in an ideal world), but rather, what’s the appropriate goal for your client?

Understanding and Communication

Often times, a personal trainer, concerned about losing an opportunity to recruit a new client, will simply try to make the impossible happen. But keep in mind that, for the lifetime of your client, it’s important to look at their goals critically. For instance, if your client has a very wiry, ectomorphic frame, then trying to obtain the body structure of a bodybuilder is going to require an extreme commitment to diet and exercise.

Ultimately, the conversation ought to begin with honesty and a simple question—why are they wanting to train? What are their goals? If the answer is simply to “get bigger,” then ask and go deeper. Why? Do they think it will give them more confidence? Perhaps they believe that it could help them be more imposing? Maybe they simply like the look and want to try it out.

What are They Really After?

You can usually redirect clients towards goals that are more attainable, especially in the beginning. The last thing you want to do is promise a total body transformation when you haven’t worked with the client long enough to really ascertain whether they have the willpower to see it through. And remember, if they fail, regardless of if it’s because they couldn’t stay away from chocolate cake or beer, they are likely to still blame you.

As such, it’s better to start with small goals. Help them achieve small victories at first, and then, you can learn how to develop the sort of accountability they need. From there, you can adjust your training plan for a more rigorous goal.

Initially, regardless of their goals, one of the first steps to improving anyone’s level of fitness is to start with building lean muscle mass. Note that this doesn’t mean to bulk muscle mass, it simply means to develop the muscle fibers in your client to stimulate muscle growth, which will help them lose fat more efficiently. Gaining muscle will help your client’s body actually become more lean, whether male or female, and more muscle mass might look like gaining weight on the scale, but it, in fact, will make the person more trim than if they simply “lost weight” alone. Make sure and talk them through this to ensure that they understand how the process works.

Sometimes, You Have to Teach Clients.

Once they’ve gotten this basic information, and whether they want to slim down, bulk up, or simply tone and define their body, they will develop a great base for this by simply building muscle tissue. Then, once you’ve gone through a month or so of the basics, you can home in on the specifics like gaining bulk, slimming down, or becoming more toned.

Sometimes, for instance, some women still hold onto the old misconception that basic weight training over a certain amount will make them bulk muscle and get huge, when this is really not the case. Bodybuilders work tirelessly on their craft, and as such, it’s an extremely specialized regimen of lifts, and often diets full of protein intake and creatine to get the particular size results they seek. This will not happen from a standard training regimen, and in fact, making your lean muscle mass increase will burn off more fat, leading to a more toned and fit appearance.

This can also be the case with some male ectomorphs who come in wanting to look like famous wrestlers like The Rock or Hulk Hogan. You need to walk them through what their body type is, and help them create more realistic goals. It’s totally possible to be healthy, look fit, and focus on training the muscle groups that are best for your frame. As a personal trainer, you can put together a program that helps them to work with their body instead of against it.

What About Protein Powder? BCAAs? Creatine? Diet?

Ultimately, here’s the deal: you have everything you need in your daily food diet to not only survive but thrive! This is important to point out in our modern culture because everywhere you look, people are trying to sell their supplements. Sometimes, these are great products that can be a game changer. But, more often, you get some questionable items put out there.

Thus, you are key to this part of the conversation. Remind your clients that they need to be focused on their macros in the beginning. Consume enough protein to help muscle cell production in the body, an essential beginning to muscle protein synthesis. They can boost this with the help of products like whey protein. Also, remember that even if they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can find adequate sources of plant-based proteins that will help with their protein intake and ensure they get every gram of protein they need in their diet.

When it comes to other supplements like creatine and branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short, it’s important to remember that this is a little out of your scope of practice. However, if your client is using these products, you can offer counsel on it, but this means that you must keep yourself up to date on the research for these supplements. This, combined with scientific observation of your client’s performance, will allow you to offer your client some objective information. Do not give prescriptive advice unless you have a certification indicating your qualifications to do so.

As for proper nutrition, make sure you’re remaining within your scope of practice, but getting the right macro target mentioned above is a great place to start. Be skeptical of things like low-fat milk, that can often have the flavor difference made-up by adding sugar. This isn’t always the case, but remember that carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are meant to be consumed together in combination. When we strip one of these elements from something like milk, it can have some unintended consequences. Remember, too, that not all fats are created equal. Some fats are healthy fats. Just make sure your client’s calories are coming from the best quality sources, and not junk, processed food.

So, How Do You Do It?

Great question! When it comes to developing lean muscle mass, you must train. You don’t necessarily need heavy weights, but if this is your preference, it’s an excellent means to resistance training. The really important factor is that your programming targets the major muscle groups. By doing this, you will increase muscle and your muscle strength—a process known as hypertrophy. Whereas this won’t necessarily help with “weight loss,” it will absolutely help with the more important component, fat loss.

Whereas lifting weights can be a great way to do this, you can also get a lot out of bodyweight exercises. As your clients get older, muscle loss is also a concern for which you need to ensure that you’ve incorporated exercises sufficient to maintain.

For many out there, high-intensity interval training is a great way to target large muscle groups and get in an exercise that will burn fat in a shorter amount of time. Anything along these lines is a great way to gain lean muscle mass.

Don’t Forget About Recovery!

If you aren’t giving your body time to recover, you’re wasting a good chunk of time at the gym. Recovery isn’t just about being efficient, it’s also about safety.

Skipping recovery time is a lost opportunity and you’re increasing the overall stress on everything—muscles, joints, ligaments, etc. Our bodies have amazing regenerative processes, but we must give them time to work.

Furthermore, you must give your body the right fuel for repairs. There’s a saying in fitness—you don’t put low octane fuel into a race car. If you want your body to perform at its best, you must also fuel it with the best—and this includes the right diet.


Love learning about how you can maximize your body through fitness? Want to help others do the same? Check out the ISSA’s online course in personal training. You can build a business helping others build a better, healthier future.

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