What to do with Scared Clients and Partners

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt

For many, nothing changed at the turn of the millennium. However, my life shifted entirely. That New Year’s Eve, I found myself in an outdoor barn watching the ball drop on a tiny TV screen with 30 of my all time closest friends. We cheered and kissed and drank and made merry. At about five minutes after midnight, I had an epiphany. I was tired of my life. I was tired of my friends, and I was tired of “fun” consisting of drinking all weekend long.

So, I drove home (I was sober) and crawled in bed with my cat and began to think about how the year 2000 could be different. Long story short, I set out to do something different. I stumbled upon the gym (then called Thompson Barbell) and stumbled upon Marc (who saw something in me worth having around). Within one year, I was working at the gym, training people, and learning to do nutritional counseling. Now, all of that brings us to the topic of this article—fear. (Bear with me…it will all come together in the end.)
I learned to train people mostly through being trained myself by Marc Bartley. Yes, I am certified through the National Academy of Sport and Medicine (NASM), but they really didn’t teach me a whole lot. However, Marc started me straight off training for powerlifting with a basic Westside program (if you don’t know what that is, no worries). I’ve learned to use those basic strength training principles when working with my clients who are mostly women ages 40–70.

What I’ve been fascinated with the most over the years is the role that fear plays in peoples’ lives. I’m not talking about silly fears like, “I’m afraid to do that and chip my nails” or “I’m afraid to do that and be sore so that I can’t enjoy going out tonight.” Those don’t really count because they come and go. My interest lies in the irrational fears, the blinding, wall building, deep seated fears that block our ability to progress. I believe that these types of fears not only keep us from reaching our goals but also push us deeper into habits and beliefs that further foster the fear. To explain, I have four case studies.
Case study #1

I have a client who is 67 years old and tough. One time she worked out with me for six weeks on a bum knee. We pulled the sled, climbed stairs, and squatted, and she played many rounds of golf on this knee that just constantly hurt. She wouldn’t stop training, and she wouldn’t go to a doctor. When she finally saw an ortho guy, she found out that her knee cap was broken. She had been doing all of that on a broken knee cap with no pain killers. She isn’t a complainer or a wimp.
On a car trip, she and her husband were stuck in a traffic jam on the interstate when they were rear ended by a Mack truck going about 40 mph. The accident tore my client’s back up. She didn’t have surgery, but she had to do some intense physical therapy. When she got back to me, not quite healed, she over did it on an abdominal machine and had a relapse with her back. She blamed the relapse on the abdominal work when in actuality it was because she over did it and her initial injury caused the flare up. Since then, she is terrified of every exercise we do, and I’m constantly explaining that things like bicep curls aren’t going to make her back flare up.
During one training session a few weeks ago, we were all working on jumping. I was teaching the group about allowing the “load” to distribute through the body by absorbing the shock through soft knees. No matter what I said this client would jump up and land with a locked body. You could see the jolt go straight through her and a wince of pain when it hit her back. I was adamant that they learn this skill, especially her because with her back injury, she needed to learn how to absorb shock. She would jump, not do what I say, feel the pain, and then mutter something about how I was going to hurt her all over again.

I was fascinated watching her. No matter how I explained what she needed to do, her fear about her back propelled her to do the exact opposite and step into an injury instead of learning to step away.
Case study #2

I had a new client join my group of ladies (the same group that the lady in the first case study is in). This new lady had never worked out before and had met with me a time or two to get oriented. Several of her friends were in that class and had been asking her for a year to join. Finally she had. The beauty of that group is that they are of several different strength levels, and I’m able to vary the exercises according to their strengths. This particular day was a lower body day. I had explained that this was her first “hard” day and that she would be a little tired and a little sore the next day. However, I was making everything as easy on her as possible. She just needed to tell me if something was too much.
We started with squat thrusts. We did these ten at a time with a very slow cadence. She did one and had a total melt down for no reason. It was just hard, and it freaked her out. So I modified it and had her just come down and put her hands on a bench, jump back, and then jump back up. Again, she totally freaked out and asked for something easier. Patiently, I explained that something any easier and she would be doing nothing. However, she refused to do any more of those.

So, while the others were doing their sets, I put her climbing the stairs. Normally, we climb two at a time (you can use the railings if you need to), but I had her just climb one at a time. It was only for about three or four minutes while the others finished up. Before I knew it (after about three flights), this lady was sitting on the top step crying and shaking her head. She was saying, “I just can’t do it. It’s too hard.” She came down, got her keys, and left. I haven’t seen her since.
Her fear that working out was going to be hard was so intense that before anything even got difficult, she worked herself up into such a state that she couldn’t continue. In her mind, everything was going to be painful, and she was so afraid of the work that she had this melt down and quit.
Case Study #3

My workout partner is one hell of a squatter. She always has squatted 50–75 lbs more than me. She is just plain strong and has never been afraid of the weight, at least not in any way that impedes her from training. Through the years, I’ve watched her squat 300 plus pounds. It’s truly amazing. However, she HATES squatting with band tension. If you even mention bands, she starts in a diatribe about how awful they are. She can’t see the benefit, and all they do is injure people yada, yada, yada. She trains with Marc too and has seen over the years his squat jump astronomically. He credits much of his improvement to his band work. That’s fine, she says/ “They work for you, but they don’t work for me.” Because of her hatred of band squatting, we very rarely do them. (I happen to like them because it is the ONLY time I stay tight under the bar.)
The other day we were discussing squatting. I shared that every time we squat with chains my sciatica acts up. I know this is because when the weight lightens at the bottom, I loosen up and my hips get shifty so I push up in contorted positions. “Yes,” she said, “I have the same reaction with bands, which is why I hate them.” She continued to explain that when she gets to the box when box squatting with bands and her brain feels the tension release a little she gets loose and then has nothing to push up with. Losing all her tension freaks her out, but it also has led to her back being fairly crippled after most band sessions.

I pointed out that she just explained why she feels it in her back. She releases her tension at the bottom. One of the reasons you squat with bands is to learn how to stay tight and push up through the gathering tension. When she gets loose at the bottom and has nothing to push up with, terror takes over and she loses all form and function, ending in tweaking her back.
In essence, she knows what she needs to do to make squatting with bands work and keep herself from being injured. However, the irrational fear that no matter what the bands are going to make her hurt, pushes her instead to abandon everything she has been taught. She knows to stay tight, but the fear makes her loose.
Case Study #4

This one is all about me. I hate to squat. I am afraid to squat. Benching is no problem. I have no fear. The worst that can happen is that the bar sits on my chest and the spotters have to get it off me. Deadlifting is no problem. I have no fear there. You either pick it up or you don’t. I know that worse things can happen in both lifts, but my mind doesn’t go there. My fear of squatting, however, has led my brain to come up with an insane amount of horrible tragedies that can happen if all goes wrong in the squat.

I’m not sure that I can articulate my worst fears, but they go something along the lines of suddenly the spotters will be gone, the weight will crush down, break my back, roll down my head, and cause massive brain injury. I will be a vegetable the rest of my life. How is that for irrational?
Marc has been working with me on the squat for seven years and only once have I squatted close to 300 lbs (my ultimate goal). Here’s all that I do wrong: my knees buckle, my upper back rounds, my feet shift, my back doesn’t stay tight, I don’t sit back far enough, I don’t load my hamstrings, I use absolutely none of my glutes to stand up, I don’t look up, and I sit the bar too high. Basically, I TOTALLY FREAK OUT on anything over 185 lbs. I teach people to squat, and I can watch a squat and tell what someone is doing wrong. I have watched enough professionals squat to write a book on it, and yet, I can’t get around my own fear enough to make any progress. I know what I need to do, but once I pick up the bar, I forget and do everything incorrectly.
These stories are not new, and I’m sure that everyone has been around someone like this, especially in the gym. Go to any powerlifting meet and you can watch guys backstage talking themselves out of their lifts. Most of the dudes are freaking out, but there is always one or two guys who are so totally scared that they talk themselves out of even warming up for the squat. In yoga class the other day, another participant refused to get into a posture that scared her and began crying before the instructor could even get to her and offer an alternative. I had a client refuse to attempt some stretching that we were doing. She was totally terrified that if she got in the stretch, she would tear a muscle.
So, if many of us suffer from an irrational fear that not only keeps us from accomplishing the goals that we set for ourselves but actually propels us further into actions and behaviors that further the fear, is there any hope? I think so. About the time I developed this theory about irrational fear, I began studying people who don’t seem to have these fears to figure out what they are doing different from the rest of us. Luckily for me, I’ve been able to attend two or three professional powerlifting meets each year. Because I’m part of the entourage for Marc Bartley, I’m able to go backstage. I get to study all of the lifters, which has given me great insight.
The lessons that I’ve learned while powerlifting have definitely helped me deal with clients who present me with an irrational fear problem. The woman in the first case study is very different today because I realized that I needed to explain everything to her. If we do an exercise that I think is going to scare her, I deconstruct it for her and explain what it is going to do to help her.

Here are some of the things that make an elite powerlifter different from the rest of us in terms of fear:
1) Watch Andy Bolton (1212-lb squat and 1003-lb deadlift) during a contest and you will notice that he just sits and hangs out with his crew. They all get excited when he is actually lifting something (warming up or on the platform) but are relaxed when he isn’t. He is approachable, and he doesn’t deconstruct every lift. If he misses one and you ask what went wrong, he will tell you straight out and then move on.
Lesson: Don’t allow yourself to get freaked out. Stay in a calm state as much as possible until you actually have to move something. Fear creeps in easily when you start thinking too hard. Relax and remember what you’ve been taught and go for it. If you allow your body to be relaxed, then you will (hopefully) do the right thing.
2) When you see a competitor pick up a squat wrong and have to re-rack, you can usually tell then if they will make the squat or not. The confident athletes just re-group, pick it up again more solidly, and go for it. The unsure ones or the ones who are all strung out can’t ever seem to recover from an initial wobble and either won’t try again or do so and you can just tell the squat is going nowhere.
Lesson: Crap will happen. Deal with it and move on. Walk away if you have to but do not try to accomplish something when the fear has set in. Either conquer the fear or take a break.
3) Even at meets, I’ll hear a lifter ask the guys around him questions. They’re always learning. Each elite lifter knows his weak points and looks to make them better. When a meet is done, it’s very common to hear groups of competitors talking about what they will do differently next time. Marc is a good example. I think he changes his deadlift training after each meet. He’s always listening, learning, and changing to make himself better.
Lesson: Train/workout to the best of your ability. When you find a weak spot or if an irrational fear pops up, figure out what you can do to get around it. Try to tackle the fear. I hate squatting, but I still do it at least once a week. I also hate box jumping, but we do that often too. It is a challenge for me to try to get over this fear, and I work on it all the time. The more you learn about what you are afraid of, the easier it will be to conquer your fear.
Although I used physical activity and training fears as the basis for this article, it is universal to most everything. We have a paperweight on the front desk at the gym that says, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I would like to change that a little bit and ask, “What would you attempt to do if only you weren’t afraid?”
Coming next…low self esteem and fear—the most deadly of combos.

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