Coaching - The Risk:Reward Ratio

Is it worth it?

The risk/reward ratio is something I've learned as I've evolved as a coach. This is something that clients or members with limited mobility, previous/current injuries and the elderly have taught me. It is not always worth it to do certain exercises. For example, I have an 'ideal' set of exercises that I like to give to clients - but certain changes must be made for different people.

I didn't always have this awareness. I thought everyone should be able to barbell squat, deadlift and do all the exercises that I do. This mindset changed very quickly as I started to take on more clients. I've gotten better at this through experience and training clients with different skill sets and injuries. For example, if I am training an older client and their hip/ankle mobility is not that great when they do a goblet squat but they can do lunges or split squats just fine, I'll often ditch the goblet squat and stick with the lunges. The way I see it, if we can explore more range of motion with a unilateral (single-leg/arm)  versus the bilateral  (both legs/arms) counterpart, then why not. So what if the 50 year old man is not putting a barbell on his back? He is getting more out of lunges/split squats with less risk of injury. That's a win. This is what I call the risk/reward ratio. If an exercise poses too much risk for injury with negligible gain, then I will not give that exercise to a client - not yet at least.

More examples

For me, the prowler/sled is an amazing tool for clients who are recovering from injuries. The prowler has one of the best risk/reward ratios, in my opinion. If a person is recovering from a low back, knee or ankle injury and their range of motion is too limited to perform deadlifts, squats or even single-leg work, I am a big fan of using the sled. This is because the client doesn't have to load their spine or knees and they can still build up their muscles, tendons and ligaments by pushing or dragging the sled. Sled drags walking backwards, sled drags in a lateral plane and sled walks are my favourites. The client can build muscle, strength and most importantly, confidence while keeping the risk of injury very low.

My second example is the straight-bar deadlift. Deadlifting with the straight bar is the 'classic' deadlift. When people think about deadlifts, they usually think about doing it with the straight bar. But the risk/reward ratio is pretty crummy - especially for beginners. I am a big fan of the trap bar/ hex bar. The risk of injury is much lower on the trap bar versus the straight bar. This is because you step inside the bar so that it is much closer to your centre of gravity versus having the bar in front of you. Also, most trap bars have a higher bar setting. This takes the load off of the load back and places some onto the quads. Again, reduced risk of injury is key here. They can still learn how to hinge at the hips, utilize leg drive, stay tight throughout the movement and lastly, how to build a strong lockout. For these reasons, I usually put clients on the trap bar until we both feel confident enough to move to the straight bar.

My last example is in regards to rep out or AMRAP sets. I like to utilize these in training programs because it is fun, it pushes clients to the limit and gives us a concrete # that we can aim to beat next session. My problem with AMRAP sets is when they are done with high-risk movements. Deadlifts and squats are high-risk movements in my books. This is not to say that I don't give my clients the occasional AMRAP set on deadlifts and squats. But before the set, I remind them to do as many as possible with their best technique. If you have to break technique to get 1 or 2 extra reps, it's usually not worth it. I also tell them, "Don't die for it. It's not worth it." So, when do I think AMRAP sets are acceptable? I think they are acceptable for many exercises - just not the ones that cause excessive load on your spine. Things like pushups, chinups, chest-supported rows, bicep curls AND MANY OTHERS. The chance of getting hurt repping out a set of chinups is little to none. Same goes for doing DB Bench, DB Curls, rope extensions, lateral raises, etc. But try repping out squats and deadlifts too often and injuries will occur.

In conclusion

Training is awesome for everyone but not everyone is training to compete. This means that not everyone needs to do a squat with a barbell on their back if it's not comfortable or safe for them to do so. Most people just want to look better, lose fat and feel better about themselves. This can be achieved in many ways. I found that I became very aware of the risk/reward ratio by training clients of different skill levels, ages and goals . I can immediately see that it won't be worth it for x client to barbell squat until we've worked on their goblet squat for a few more weeks or months. I am more aware that x client has had low back injuries in the past so going super heavy on deadlifts isn't that worth it for them. In this case, I keep the reps in the 6-12 range and adjust the intensity as needed. I am comfortable pushing myself close to the point of injury and have gotten injured many times in the past doing so. But I am not comfortable having my client do that.

Experience has taught me many of these things that I don't think books or courses can ever teach. Working with a variety of clients has given me the amazing opportunity to learn, become better and know how to support my clients and safely guide them towards their goals. The best part about all of this is that I feel like I'm just getting started.