Of all the training variables involved in a client’s path to success, the most important is often consistency. This means coming back day after day, buying into the process, and being committed to the challenging journey of changing their body. At a fundamental level, one of the personal trainer’s primary objectives is simply to keep them wanting to coming back. While this may sound simple, many personal trainers set themselves up to under deliver on this goal from the beginning. Framing of the personal trainer-client relationship sets the stage for future success, and it all starts with the personal trainer’s approach.
Clients first getting started with a personal trainer may experience one of the two following scenarios:
Scenario 1: A client comes in for the first time and explains that he or she would like to lose some weight. The personal trainer takes over the conversation from there and precedes to the whiteboard to explain the inner workings of glucose metabolism, insulin control, and gluten intolerance. The personal trainer has decided that these are likely the primary nutritional reasons why people like this client are overweight. After running the client through an overhead squat analysis, the personal trainer determines that they will need to fix their knee valgus before even focusing on weight loss. The personal trainer also explains that the client should lose at least 5% body fat. In order to do so, the personal trainer decides that the client will need to learn to barbell deadlift and do additional running on their off days. The personal trainer then slides the client into an already complete, six meal-a-day plan to get started on right away.
Scenario 2: The client comes in for the first time and explains that he or she would like to lose some weight. From there, the personal trainer asks why the client is looking to lose weight and what was it about today that made them come in. The personal trainer continues to ask open ended questions to attain a deeper understanding. The personal trainer tries to find out more about the client’s life, what they enjoy, what they are struggling with, and ask more about why losing weight is important. The personal trainer lets the client know that they will be involved in the planning process and that they want to create a plan that is challenging but realistic. The personal trainer paints a picture of what they will be working on but explains that it is a process that requires making changes and communicating. As for nutrition, the personal trainer explains that the goal is to start small. He asks the client to log their food for three days to establish a baseline of where to make suggestions and recommendations for the client to make improvements.
Client- vs. Trainer-Centered Training
The primary difference between trainer-centered training (TCT) and client-centered training (CCT) lies in the focus. The first scenario, is an example of TCT. In this scenario, the personal trainer may truly care about clients and want to see them get results, but they make the assumption that they know best and should be in control. This “expert mindset” and trainer-centered focus often, but not always, go hand-in-hand. Here the personal trainer asks fewer questions and is quick to make assumptions and decisions based on their expert opinion. Expectations may be high and they may be eager to impress clients with their level of technical knowledge. While this may all be done with the best of intentions, it can overwhelm clients and actually work against their motivations to get started.
The TCT approach often fits clients into a “box,” where they believe every client should train a certain way. This training style tends to revolve around the personal trainer’s preferred style of training and expertise, rather than the needs or preferences of the client. This is most often done with a style of communication where the persona is that the trainer knows what’s best for the client, and they should follow their lead (3). There can be a place and time for this approach but it may fail to motivate many clients who need to be involved and invested in the process to make changes.
On the other hand, a CCT approach, such as the one described in the second scenario, portrays a very different strategy towards working with clients. It all stems from adopting a coaching mindset where the client is the focus at all times. In Motivational Interviewing, this is referred to as the guiding style of communication (3). Instead of talking at clients, personal trainers adhering to a CCT approach talk with clients. This approach is far more effective at quickly building rapport, which can go a long way in getting clients to commit to the demanding changes they will need to make in order to meet their desired outcomes. Unlike the TCT approach, the CCT approach acknowledges that clients have an individual physiology, psychology, and lifestyle that must all be addressed. Put simply, great personal trainers work with people not just bodies.
Table 1. Client- vs. Trainer-Centered Training
Keys to Client-Centered Coaching
Developing a deep relationship of understanding and respect will likely not happen right away with every client; great personal training takes time. However, there are two primary objectives personal trainers can focus on doing with every client to facilitate this process.
Strive to Understand
The CCT approach emphasizes finding out who clients really are and what drives them. Asking basic questions about what they do for a living and what workouts worked for them in the past can be helpful, but are really just surface level basics. Personal trainers who truly understand their clients are then able to nudge them along little by little and extend their threshold without overdoing it. Personal trainers looking to get to this higher level need to consistently ask more thought-provoking questions that lead clients down a path of self-awareness. Asking the right questions and motivational interviewing tactics can be powerful in helping clients arrive to conclusions and solutions themselves, rather than being told what to do (2).
Discovering what motivates them and what their favorite exercises are can go a long way; however, it does not stop there. It is critical to find out what type of exerciser the client is and what appeals to them. Some personal trainers train clients how they themselves like to work out. This could be a problem if the personal trainer likes to powerlift and the client is looking for something with more variety.
Table 2 below displays a way in which to categorize clients based upon how they might enjoy working out (1). As trainers further understand their clients, they can structure programs in a way that not only meets their goals, but also their personalities. Some clients may enjoy the consistency and mastery that a more traditional training approach employs, while others crave constant variety and want their training sessions to be a different experience every time. Personal trainers who can attain this level of understanding with clients are far more likely to keep clients motivated and engaged in their training long term.
Table 2. PTA Global Movement Styles and Preferences (1)
Involve the Client in the Process
Understanding what type of exerciser clients are is a great way of showing them that they are an active part of the process. Clients that feel more involved in their program are often more likely to stay consistent with their workouts, and stay mentally engaged in the tasks they need to accomplish to create change. Much like dancing, coaching lifestyle change works much better when partners move together, rather than one dragging the other across the floor (3).
Involving clients, just like becoming a great dance partner,can be achieved by constantly asking for feedback. The personal trainer should try to find out how they are feeling about the workouts and approach. Instead of asking the client if they are sore or how their day is going, the personal trainer should ask them to evaluate the process. Keep them involved by asking questions like:
“How do you feel like you are doing with food right now and why?”
“What do you feel really good about right now that is working for you?”
“Where do you feel like you could do more or improve?”
“In what area could you use more coaching?”
“Is there anything you would like to focus on more in our workouts?”
“How is that working for you?”
More importantly, when clients give good feedback, it must be addressed. For example, if a client mentions that they do not like barbell back squats, then do not try to force the client to perform them. Making adjustments based on their preferences will make it obvious to the client that the personal trainer is listening to them and willing to work together.
Putting it Together
The following serves as a checklist that personal trainers can keep in mind when ensuring that they are following a CTC approach on a daily basis:
Ask thought-provoking questions, avoid “yes” or “no” questions, and explore the client’s answers
Avoid instances of doing more talking than listening
Strive to talk with, not at, clients
Try to think of a simpler way of explaining things to the client
Regularly involve clients in the planning process, not only in the beginning
Ask clients if there is anything they would really like to see in their workouts, nutrition, or overall program
Becoming a great personal trainer and using a CCT approach can not only be challenging, but also frustrating. Finding out how to give clients the right information, at the right time, and in a way that will resonate with them takes patience and experience. At times, it may be tempting to take the TCT route and tell clients what they need to do to get immediate results, but this may be selling them short on success in the long run.
Corn, R, and Cappuccio, B. Client Centered Training: A Trainer and Coach’s Guide to Motivating Clients. Level 7 Psychology in Association with PTA Global. First Quartz Pty Ltd; 2014.
Lothess, J. Helping motivate resistant clients- Motivational interviewing skills for personal trainers. Personal Training Quarterly 1(3): 26-29, 2014.
Miller, W., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: helping people change. New York: Guildford Press
***This article was originally published in the NSCA Personal Training Quarterly