ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best in Fitness?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best in Fitness?

Reading Time: 6 minutes 30 seconds


Date: 2022-11-11

If you want to be successful as a personal trainer, you must be able to keep your clients motivated. Not just during their training sessions, either. They have to be so intent on reaching their goals that they change their behavior outside the gym as well. 

Some trainers try to stoke client motivation by focusing on intrinsic reward. Others take the extrinsic reward approach. Which is best for compelling long-term behavior change? Before we answer that question, let’s talk first about what motivation is.

Understanding Motivation and Motivation Theory

Motivation is defined, in part, as “having a strong reason to act or accomplish something.” In the world of fitness, this motivation may lie in improved health. They want to feel better physically or emotionally. Another common motivator is the desire to improve their physical appearance. They don’t feel good about how they look and want to feel more comfortable in their own skin.

Several theories exist for explaining what drives motivation. One of the most well-known is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The basis of this theory is that a person’s physiological needs must be met first. This involves having access to food, water, and a warm place to lay their head. It also includes feeling safe and secure. 

Once these basic needs are met, the person can tend to their psychological needs. This is where they satisfy their needs for belonging, love, and feelings of accomplishment. It is only when these needs are met that they can move on to achieving their full potential. This highest level is called self-actualization.

If you subscribe to Maslow’s hierarchy, helping clients begins with determining where they are on this pyramid. It requires identifying which needs are not being met and finding ways to satisfy them so they can move up the chain and become the best version of themselves possible.

Certainly, as a personal trainer, many of these needs are outside the scope of practice. Not to mention, it’s not humanly possible to meet all of your clients' needs. Instead, you have to find ways to inspire clients to want to push or motivate themselves. This is where intrinsic and extrinsic motivation come into play.

Intrinsic Motivation Defined 

Intrinsic motivation is also known as internal motivation. It is feeling compelled to do something because you enjoy it or because it satisfies you on an internal level. The way the activity or behavior makes you feel is the reward in and of itself.

Examples of internal rewards include being able to move around easier after losing weight or being able to say that you ran a 5k. Achieving these goals makes you feel good on the inside. They increase your level of personal satisfaction. Intrinsic motivators make you proud of who you are and what you’ve done.

Extrinsic Motivation Explained

Extrinsic motivation is different in that it relies on an external reward. You do something not because you want to, but because there is some external factor that is driving you to change your behavior. 

Extrinsic motivators can be a spouse or other family member telling you that you need to lose weight. Or it might involve deciding to build muscle to win a bodybuilding competition. You want that award hanging on your wall.

External motivation is a motivation that seeks to satisfy an outside source. You engage in an activity or change a behavior to make someone else happy or to earn a tangible award.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best for Training Clients?

So, which works best when it comes to keeping personal training clients driven and focused: an intrinsic motivator or an extrinsic motivator? The research leans more toward intrinsic motivation.

For example, one study asked 645 older adults what motivated them most to exercise. Reasons provided included that they wanted to improve their health and fitness or they wanted the social and emotional benefits that physical activity has to offer. Yet, what was the one motivating factor that contributed the most to getting them to move more? Whether or not they enjoyed the exercise.

Another study looked at the impact intrinsic motivation has on sticking to an exercise program. In this case, 87 physically inactive adults were asked to perform either high or moderate-intensity exercise for 10 weeks. 

Researchers found that the participant’s level of intrinsic motivation predicted whether they’d adhere to their exercise routine. Again, it was an internal desire that was most effective at changing human behavior. The question is: how do you help your clients stoke these internal factors? 

3 Elements of Effective Motivation

It doesn’t matter how much you want a client to change a specific behavior. They have to want to change it themselves. This can be frustrating from a personal training standpoint. It sometimes feels like you’re fighting a losing battle. Yet, there are a few things you can do to help clients increase their intrinsic motivation. 

Motivation is more than just having willpower. It is a deep, internal drive to do what must be done in order to live a better life. It is a force so compelling that you are willing to engage in a specific activity, even if you’d rather do something else.

Having this level of motivation requires the presence of three key elements:

  • Autonomy – the ability to choose for yourself; not being forced

  • Mastery – achieving a level of expertise or proficiency in the activity being performed

  • Purpose – having a deeper reason for doing something; a reason outside yourself

Being a successful personal trainer involves helping your clients develop these three areas. They must feel as if they are changing their behaviors because they want to, not because someone else wants it for them. They must also feel competent enough to follow the exercise and diet program. And they must be able to see the big picture of what making positive lifestyle changes represents.

4 Steps for Increasing Client Motivation

Sound a bit overwhelming? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, by incorporating four steps into your current training program, you can help clients in all of these areas. This enables them to meet all of their health and fitness goals.

Step 1: Educate Your Clients

The first step to reinforcing intrinsically motivated behavior is to help clients see how important each of these elements is to achieving their long-term goals. Talk to them about autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Get them to see that, when all three of these are present, motivation becomes almost automatic. 

It may be helpful to use an example that they already experience in their day-to-day life. One to consider is workplace motivation. Companies spend tons of money trying to increase employee engagement by providing an extrinsic incentive. They offer higher pay or bonuses, for instance. 

Yet, research has consistently shown that the people who work the hardest are those who have the highest level of job satisfaction. In other words, they don’t do it for the pay or bonuses or benefits. They do it because they enjoy what they do. Offer them hope that they can achieve the same level of enjoyment in working out and eating a healthier diet.

Step 2: Assess Their Current Standings

Once your clients realize the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, the next step is to assess where they stand regarding each. 

Talk to them about whether they are working out or eating better for themselves or because of some outside factor. Ask how comfortable they feel with the exercise program you’ve created. Do they have any concerns about the movements they’re learning?

Also inquire as to what their higher purpose may be. What makes them feel most appreciated or as if their efforts matter? When are they most connected to the people around them?

Step 3: Identify Barriers

The next step involves identifying your client’s barriers to meeting these three criteria. What is standing in their way of achieving full autonomy, mastery, or purpose? What is stopping them from reaching their personal goal?

Step 4: Develop Concrete Action Steps

The fourth and final step is to develop an action plan for overcoming the client’s barriers. In the case of autonomy, this likely involves giving them more control over what they do, when they do it, and how they do it. Give them an active role in determining their exercise schedule. Let them decide the exercises they want to perform (within certain parameters, of course).

Improving their level of mastery can be accomplished by teaching them a new exercise or skill. We gain mastery through the learning process. So, teach them something they don’t already know. An example might be learning how to build a specific group of muscles. 

It’s also helpful to keep reminding them of their bigger purpose. Help them see how getting healthier will benefit those around them. Another way to boost purpose is to get them actively involved in helping others reach similar goals. By acting as a mentor or model themselves, they are inspired to continue their positive behaviors for the long haul.

Should You Ever Use an External Motivator?

If extrinsic motivation isn’t as powerful as intrinsic motivation, you may be wondering whether you should ever use any type of external or material reward. Maybe you want to offer a cash reward to the client who loses the most weight or builds the most muscle. Or you want to give a gift card to clients once they complete the program.

While extrinsic rewards may get clients to sign up for your training, research doesn’t support this as a long-term motivation method. So, if you are going to use this type of reward, keep in mind that it must be supplemented with building intrinsic motivation if you want to compel a client to change consistently over time.

The ISSA’s Health Coach certification teaches even more ways to better motivate your personal training clients. When you can provide the right incentive, it leads to long-term results. As a health coach, you’ll learn how to create meaningful lifestyle changes and advance the future of fitness through health and wellness.

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Certified Health Coach

ISSA's Health Coach certification is for personal trainers and other health professionals who want to help clients overcome physical and mental health barriers to achieve their optimal wellness.


Dacey, M. (2008). Older adults' intrinsic and extrinsic motivation toward physical activity. American Journal of Health Behavior, 32(6). 

Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., Shepherd, S. O., Ntoumanis, N., Wagenmakers, A. J. M., & Shaw, C. S. (2016). Intrinsic motivation in two exercise interventions: Associations with fitness and body composition. Health Psychology, 35(2), 195–198.

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