Nutrition. Food. A polarising topic but most of the time simply misunderstood due to lack of education.
And without doubt, however, In my opinion at least, the missing link that connects the dots and holds the key to progress for many of our clients.
As coaches, In the gym, we lead the dance. We supply the hymn sheets, manipulate the variables, and we make sure the work gets done. Physically we can help.
In the other 160 odd hours of the week, however, we lose control of those variables. Progress is out of our hands. Recovery. Diet. Sleep. Stress. That’s on them not us. Right?
Well, it depends.
I’m only going to deal with diet here. It’s my thing. It’s what initially gave me a foothold in this industry and something I’m fiercely passionate about.
When it comes to a clients dietary habits we can advise, lecture, guide, and talk until we are blue in the face but if it isn’t having the desired effect then maybe we need to start looking at ‘what we are saying not what they are doing‘.
In light of this, I’m going to give my top 5 points that we need, as coaches, to address and get right.
The object of this blog is to simply give food for thought. Pun intended. So that we can go away, reflect, and further discuss as coaches our own thoughts on the matter.
1. Meet the client where they currently are
Meet the client where they are at now not where you think they should be.
Each client’s dietary intake will be as unique as their DNA.
It’s mindless to just assume they are nailing the basics and eating the foods we expect them to be eating on a daily basis. It’s rarely the case.
Each and every client will be on a different chapter of their book. Find out what page they are on now and help them rewrite the next chapter which ultimately results in a happy ending to their story.
For example If someone struggles to eat breakfast, usually grabs lunch on the go, works long hours, and maybe finds time to sit down and eat one proper meal a day at 9pm at night then It’s ridiculous to try and convince them that they need to eat 5 or 6 meals a day with a macro split of 40/30/30.
It’ll never happen straight away. Instead starting with something like helping to streamline their morning routine so they can consume a balanced nutritious breakfast will be a massive step in the right direction.
Similarly, if a client’s current protein sources come in the form of Big Macs, spare ribs from the local Chinese takeaway, and the odd protein shake after training, then don’t expect them to start buying grass fed organic beef, pasture raised chicken, and wild-caught salmon.
Ditching the takeaways and giving them a list of lean protein sources to choose from would be a much better idea, to begin with.
One of the unique things we do as Combined Strength Coaches is have a P1 & P2 protocol for our clients. Basically two priorities that need to be addressed to improve movement, mobility, and assist their main training focus.
Well I use the same principle for clients nutritional needs as well. What are the P1 & P2 issues that need addressing to help progress and improve eating habits. Figure those out and have the client work on them daily. It generally gets things moving in the right direction straight away.
2. Avoid huge calorie restrictions
Clients with a goal of fat loss need to be in a calorie deficit. We know that. But encouraging them to cut out so much food that it puts them in too much of a negative energy balance is massively counterproductive in the long term.
Point in case. Recently I have worked with an influx of new members to our gym. These people have come to us from another local facility that runs ‘transformation challenges’ that promise your money back if you hit ‘weight loss’ targets. These people are put on strict diets of around 800-1000 calories per day and exercise programs of 4-5 days of high-intensity work every week.
The ‘weight’ drops of them. They get their first 2 months money back. And immediately sign up for another 6 months. Fast forward another 6 weeks and they are starving, exhausted, and unmotivated to train. They binge. Revert back to the unhealthy lifestyle they used to live. They have learned nothing. Other than to hate the sight of plain chicken, tuna fish, and broccoli.
Tied into a 6-month membership to a gym they now can’t face attending and a hate of ‘clean eating’ they end up putting all their weight back on plus more.
I’ve literally spent hours upon hours re-educating these people on diet and nutrition when they come to us looking for a solution.
Helping them find their own maintenance calorie levels using diet diaries and sensible guidelines to follow. Then looking to move into gradual energy deficits to aid long-term sustainable fat loss.
3. It’s an education process
This leads on nicely from the last point.
Just as in our exercise programmes and coaching sessions where we aim to educate our clients, our nutrition guidance should be just as educational.
Don’t eat that.
The outcome is confusion.
Why why why. Giving a reason for asking a client to do something or follow a certain protocol should be immediately followed up by a reason why.
The problem stems from the old adage of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.
Your clients will have read all about the latest diet trends, superfoods, eating protocols, and meal timing miracles. Their favourite celebrity or sports star who followed this diet and lost 30lbs of body fat and built 10lbs of lean muscle…. in a week.
They suddenly think ‘hey that’ll work for me too’ and spend a fortune on detox teas, spirulina powder, and mass gain 5000 powders. Blend them all together and voila, an expensive trip to the toilet.
Now there’s a distinct possibility they may well actually see some good early results from these diets. But then the whole sustainability problem arises again and it goes out the window. Back to square one again.
One of the first things I teach is the 80/20 principle. Eat well 80% of the time and allow 20% for less optimal but frequently craved food choices.
Give and take. But much more sustainable for the client in the long run.
If a client wants to trial a particular eating style then explain why you think it would or would not be a good idea for them. They’ll probably do it anyway. But being there to support and explain why it is or isn’t having the desired effect will be crucial.
4. Don’t force our own dietary preferences on others
Don’t force our own dietary preferences on others.
We all have our preferred eating styles. Personally, I like a higher fat, lower carb diet. When I’m looking to lean up a little I really enjoy the Intermittent fasting approach. It works for me and suits my lifestyle. But that’s just me. Years of trying different methods, feeding times and windows, eating different macro splits etc have led me to the point where I know what works for me and what I enjoy doing. And quite honestly it’s just the 80/20 rule done consistently.
One thing I never do however is to try and force what works for me onto a client.
Yes, of course, we get asked all the time “what do you eat”, “what do you think of keto”, “won’t eating all those carbs make me fat!”….. don’t even get me started on that!!!
And this now goes back to the educational process.
We should be trying to help our clients find out what works best ‘for them’.
- What suits their lifestyle?
- What foods do they enjoy most?
- What is the one thing they can’t-do without?
- Do they work shifts and eat at obscure times of the day and night?
- How do they feel energy wise 30mins after eating a particular meal?
- Is breakfast something they genuinely struggle to consume because they can’t stomach big meals early in the morning?
- Do they train better after eating something?
- Or does training in a fasted state make them feel lighter, faster, and able to push more intensely?
These are all things that will work, or not, for different people. And it’s our role as coaches to advise and educate on each one.
Most people will tell you what has worked for them in the past. But when I ask “well why aren’t you eating like that now?”. You often get the response “I just couldn’t stick to it”.
Well, it didn’t work then.
One of the biggest things I work on straight away is trying to get clients out of the diet mentality. To stop looking at eating a particular way as ‘being on a diet’.
Start looking at what you are about to consume as food. Not ‘how many calories are in that’. Yes, of course, we can talk about a time and place for calorie counting but again that’s for a different day. This is basics. Get them right with people. Consistently. Day on day, week on week, and build from there.
Ultimately that’s what we should be striving for. Results. Long-term sustainable results. Not quick fixes.
One thing I will add here is we should always be helping a client achieve their own particular goal too. This might not be fat loss. It may be adding some muscle mass. Or achieving balanced energy levels throughout the day with no crashes. Or an athlete who needs to peak for a certain show, event, race, or fight. These may take certain dietary interventions for a specific goal.
In short get to know your client better. Focus on their own particular goal. And don’t simply recommend what works for you. We are all different.
5. Set the example
As coaches and fitness professionals we have a responsibility. People look to us for help. To help change physically and more and more so I’m finding mentally.
We have the power to do that and it should never be taken for granted.
As Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility”.
(Not Uncle Ben’s rice…..the ‘other’ uncle Ben….)
Without going into a rant about the Instagram population who try to convince us that eating donuts, dominos, and pop tarts every day can lead to the shredded look they portray. The fact is people look at that and think it’s possible for them to do it.
Rightly or wrongly what our clients and followers see us doing is what they will deem acceptable to do too.
I’m a realist. I’m not a hypocrite. I will never ask a client to do something that I wouldn’t nor will I lie and say I never have a beer or an ice cream.
I’m a father. I’ll never turn down an ice cream with my daughter once a week ‘because I’m on a diet Mila sorry’. I also love steak and a couple of well-earned beers on a Friday night. Lifestyle. Sustainably. 80/20 remember.
But I will never plaster my social media with pictures of chocolate cakes and food binges and try to convince others this is what I do all the time and it works for me. Because it doesn’t. For anyone.
Paint the picture of your own real life by all means. As responsible professionals, that’s what we do well anyways. And that’s why people gravitate towards you. Because honesty is what builds trust and respect.
But just remember there is always someone watching and listening. That’s what we put ourselves forward for when we decided to become coaches, trainers, and public service professionals.
Set the example. My own tagline I like to use is ‘Be the change’.
I might not be able to change the world. But I can help change someone’s world. And that’ll do for a start.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Mark Middleton is a Combined Strength Coach based in Newcastle, working out of The Fitness Rooms.
You can check him out on his website: www.thefitnesslifeacademy.com