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ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, Guide to Working with Challenging Personal Training Clients

Guide to Working with Challenging Personal Training Clients

Reading Time: 4 minutes 58 seconds


DATE: 2023-01-07

Like it or not, personal training is a customer service industry. Whether you are working at a major big box gym or you run your own personal training business as an independent trainer, how you interact with your clients will determine whether you retain them as a client.

This is the part of the job that goes beyond exercise science, training sessions, and fitness levels. If you have difficult clients, then it's time to start evaluating the relationship.

The Reality of Coaching Clients

Usually, potential clients are looking to make a big change in their lives. By reaching out to you as a certified personal trainer, they are often dissatisfied with some aspect of their life. They might want to focus on weight loss, but not want to change anything about their nutrition.

The fact is that a good trainer has to be a good coach. Many people think that the financial aspect of personal training is purely of accountability and education. In this, they aren't wrong, but this only starts to scratch the surface.

In reality, a personal training client should expect some level of disruption in their day-to-day lives. Oftentimes, this can breed resentment if it isn't discussed with your clients on the front end. And that starts with communication.

Communication is the basis of successful fitness training, no matter how you slice it.

Emotional IQ For Fitness Professionals

You have to be more than a wealth of information. You have to give the proper motivation. This is true regardless of if you're doing group training or concierge-level individualized training.

This means that, to be a successful personal trainer, you need to work on your emotional IQ as much as you work on your knowledge of exercise physiology. Fitness journeys are often difficult, and require a lot of hand-holding to generate results.

But being able to show empathy and compassion are paramount to making this whole process work. Even for the fitness clients looking for more of a "drill sergeant" in their workout program still need to have some sort of positive support to live a healthier lifestyle.

Educating yourself on the emotional component of being a fitness trainer can really set you up for success.

Tips for Working with Challenging Clients

You don't always have the luxury of choosing which clients you get to train, though. So how can you encourage coachability to make them ideal clients?

Let's go through some tips that will really help you with challenging clients.

1. Set Expectations

From day one, you need to clearly understand what their goals are. But not all goals are achievable. You need to really steer the conversation towards SMART goals—goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based. Make sure that if this means that their initial goal, like losing 100 pounds over the summer, might be too lofty to achieve, you help them rework it.

They need to know that you will be pushing the goals that are healthy for them and that won't set them up for failure. When they have clear expectations that you help to define, it is easier to stay motivated.

2. Challenge Negativity

It's going to be essential that your client remain positive. You will find that a lot of challenging clients have a degree of negativity they can't shake. Your clients might not believe in themselves yet—so they need you to believe in them. Be encouraging, motivating, whatever else is there. But also challenge their inner critical voice.

A client with a strong inner critical voice will exacerbate their negativity, which can even turn positive victories into a negative outcome in their minds, like losing 25 pounds instead of 35. Do not let them turn success into failure in their own minds.

3. Discuss Accountability

Some are going to be resistant to accountability. Mention that accountability is a fundamental part of this process, whether it's about their meal plans, working out in between sessions, or anything else like this.

Also, discuss the sort of accountability that works for them. If they are afraid to tell you the truth when they mess up, then there's no real way it'll work. Make sure to use that kindness and compassion, and let them know when they slip up it isn't the end of the world.

Then, work through strategies in the future they can use when they want to cheat on diet or exercise.

Assessing Coachability

When you're screening a new client, it's important for you to do more than just a fitness assessment. You really need to engage with your clients. But you also need to know whether your clients have the capability of receiving your coaching. Gauge how receptive they are to changes in their daily habits. If they, deep down, aren't ready to make the changes they need to make, you need to make another consideration.

Not every client is always worth the money. In fact, sometimes, clients can end up costing you more time and energy than the income you receive from them. This can be very draining on you, and take away from your own goals.

Now, this doesn't mean that you refuse to train someone who lacks realistic goals. It means you have to learn to coach them on setting realistic expectations.

If they are expecting huge results, but aren't willing to employ a proper meal plan, then there's little you will be able to do. This is where you would need to explain to them in a gentle yet upfront manner that if they want to achieve the fitness goals they mentioned, they will need to abide by the program you give them, or tweak it so it will work better in their lives.

The key is setting clear expectations and realistic goals. Then, it's about helping them solve the problems that get in the way of working out.

They have to be coachable. This means that they must be receptive to making changes. Your job isn't to make them coachable, but rather to offer the coaching and guidance they need. Just be mindful from the beginning. If they aren't coachable, then you really need to consider the ramifications of what it would do to your reputation and word-of-mouth advertising.

Focus on the Human Factor

At the end of the day, your success or failure as a trainer will come down to your ability to connect with your clients. Sometimes, this can be about emotional support, other times, it will be about simply enforcing their meal plans.

The key is that you treat your clients like people. We all make mistakes. How do you break the pattern? How do you really find ways to break bad habits and instill good ones? This will ultimately come down to trust.

Getting your clients to trust you beyond just your knowledge and expertise can be a challenge. So, make sure and develop the personal connections needed with your clients to uncover the path to success.

If you follow these, you will better position yourself to retain clients for the long term. Ultimately, this is how you find stability as a trainer—but sometimes, it means going above and beyond.

If you would like to learn more about how to train challenging clients, and additional strategies for being a more successful personal trainer, sign up for the ISSA's Transformation Specialist course!

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