Strength Training Best Practices for Personal Training Clients – Research Review


Sep 11, 2020

By Tim Saye

When working with clients who have goals around strength and muscle gain there are many variables to take in to consideration. Given this it is difficult for science to provide definitive conclusions across all demographics, it can however help guide you toward best practices for each of your clients. Here we look through recent research regarding strength and hypertrophy training.

Exercise Form and Range of Motion

The range of motion that your client is able to move through for an exercise will have some bearing on their strength. The muscle tension through the dynamic range of performing a rep is one of the factors which will determine strength. 

When introducing a client to an exercise, demo the movement for them, explaining, in particular, the points that you'll be looking for as they execute it themselves.

If their form needs work don't be afraid to use lighter weights while they learn good movement patterns. You can also ask for feedback to understand how well and where they feel their muscles contracting. This way, you can help them focus on the right body parts and muscles for improving the mind-muscle connection.

RIR, RPE and Training to Failure

Pushing your clients to work hard is vital in gaining strength or increasing muscle. Whether or not to push clients to failure is often debated. Most recent research indicates no significant difference in results from pushing to failure or not, however holding a little back can lead to less soreness and better adherence to training programs.

With that in mind reps in reserve is a suitable method of strength training for more experienced clients. Telling your client to "keep one or two good ones in the tank" is useful in this situation. However, it does require that they can focus on their training and know when they are close to failure. This is often not possible when you train newer clients.

In the case of training less experienced clients, using a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) can help. The scale makes intuitive sense and asking them "how hard was that, out of ten?" is something that almost everyone can understand. 

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is when you challenge yourself or your client by doing more "work" thus aiding strength and muscle development. There are multiple ways to achieve progressive overload, depending on the training method you apply. 

Traditional Training

In traditional training progressive overload can be achieved through lifting more weight, adding more sets or reps, shortening rest intervals and other techniques like manipulating lifting speeds, time under tension (TUT), and range of motion.

Reps and Sets
Gains in strength look to be best achieved through lifting heavy weights with fairly low reps (1-5 reps). However, all resistance training seems to have a strength gain, and a variety of rep ranges have their place. 

Anything between 5 and 40 reps per set have a significant effect on muscular hypertrophy so there is a lot of room here for using a verity of rep ranges. For practical reasons, it is a good rule of thumb to aim for about 8–15 reps per set. Here, the muscle-building effect is large, and it is quite easy to tire out your muscles.

Training Volume/Frequency
Research shows that as little as39 minutes of carefully designed resistance training per week can result in significant strength improvement. Your clients on a tight schedule will certainly appreciate not having to spend hours on end in the gym.

Scientific recommendations suggest that from a strength goal aspect, using a moderate approach when it comes to training frequency (2-3x per week, per body part) might be a good idea. That will allow the client's body to recover properly between sessions, thus preventing injuries and aiding muscular adaptations to take place.

Unless your client wants to become a pro lifter, adjusting their training volume to their lifestyle makes sense for adherence. 

Functional Training

In functional training, progressive overload can be achieved by increasing the complexity of the exercises performed which is a novel method in strength training and seems to work for a particular type of client, like prepubertal athletes for specific functional movement and athletic development goals.

Another area where functional training may be more useful is when training middle-aged and elderly clients, particularly women. The benefit is not only in developing strength, but also starting a health program that keeps them engaged to adhere to a new lifestyle.

The study shows that the overall strength benefit of traditional and functional strength training in the long-term are similar. Still, functional training can be less monotone and show physical fitness adaptations quicker than conventional strength training.


Encouraging your clients to embrace progressive overload will help them to train with more focus and intensity. To break through plateaus in their training which, if left unchecked, could lead to a drop in motivation. When your clients see that they are getting stronger by lifting what once felt heavy and can perform movements they never thought they would, they will adhere better to the training plan that you've set them.

What practical steps can you implement with your client to make sure that they are progressively overloading themselves during their training sessions? The simplest way is to keep a training diary. This is simply recording what exercises were performed, the sets and reps, the weight lifted, and possibly how hard the workout felt. This is easy for clients to do using the PT Distinction app.