A client arrives for a consultation, nervous, apprehensive and, most of all, optimistic. She's been convinced that you as an experienced personal trainer really have the ability to get her to the body she's been envisioning for 12 years. Up until now, the mirror has failed to validate the vision. You're about to change that.

Six weeks into your 12-week program, she's losing belief, but she hears you when you tell her about the scale being an inefficient gauge of progress. She battles her dwindling motivation and makes it to the 12-week follow-up body composition test.

Your computer printout includes the words "no change." Internally, you justify and blame, as it clearly isn't your fault. She no doubt grabbed those handfuls of potato chips she told you she had abandoned. The pre-bed snacks were more common than she led you to believe. She was lying when she told you she did 45 minutes of cardio on her off days.

She leaves the assessment discouraged and disheartened, and then she utters five words that infuriate you: "I want my money back." How dare she! You devoted 12 weeks to her. You showed up on time for every session. You spent extra time going over her food logs and addressed her concerns and insecurities. You even called her to make sure she wasn't missing her at-home cardio sessions.

But did you actually do your part? Everything we do as personal fitness trainers relates to either influence-ability or response-ability. If you believe your "job" is to guide people through exercise routines or that a periodic phone call or a visual browse over a scribbled report of food consumption is an empowering connection, you're likely going to disappoint a large segment of your audience. I'm not suggesting fat loss failure is your fault, but I am urging you to assess whether you should feel responsible for someone who commits to your direction and fails to achieve the desired result.

Before we can guarantee success, it's important that we acknowledge the reasons clients fail. It's important that we hold a spotlight up to our abilities in the realms of both influence and responsibility and that we come to comfortable terms with what each of our client relationships involves.

Are All Trainers Responsible?
Let's establish a distinction between a certified personal trainer seeking part-time income and perhaps a stepping point and a fitness professional seeking excellence, career security and the ongoing reward of positively impacting the lives of others. Those who simply learn to prescribe and implement safe and efficacious exercise routines should not be condemned for their choice of avocation. There is, however, an immense distance between "exercise prescription" and "influence and responsibility." I'll speak to the career professional seeking mastery of influence and responsibility.

Influence is vital if we are to affect long-term change. Granted, there is value in the delivery of an exercise regimen, but the real world cannot help but impact adherence. Exercise is only a piece of the puzzle, and without direction of habits, nutrition, stress management and recovery, results will be limited at best. The career professional understands elements of human psychology and identifies individual triggers and beliefs, and with these abilities, the guarantee of results becomes far less daunting.

Responsibility is a misunderstood concept. By accepting responsibility, you are not solely responsible for the outcome of your client, but it does involve you in the possibility of long-term follow-through, and it facilitates a true partnership. Consider responsibility as the ability to respond. A "response-able" trainer has the ability to identify obstacles, be they physical, emotional or social, and offer solutions. If a client is going on a vacation, rather than acknowledging that results may be undone, a travel and post-travel plan allow the client to feel power over long-term outcomes. In cases where a well-intentioned spouse may fail to understand supportive nutrition principles, the trainer has the ability to offer an instructional walk through the grocery store or the kitchen. Overlapping both responsibility and influence is the vital feedback loop. If we are to go beyond exercise prescription and facilitate life-change, we must learn to ask, measure, assess and adjust not only the regimen but also the mindset. Some will insist I'm delving outside of our scope of practice and into the realm of coaching, but the ability to steer belief and mindset is a necessity for outcome control. A true fitness professional is not a workout buddy nor a form and function coach but rather an ally in connecting with an individual's want to feel better about him or herself.

If we further recognize that fitness failure often has less to with flawed program design than with limiting beliefs, disempowering habits and challenging social issues, we also understand that we abandon any sense of control. Blaming the client becomes an admission of failure, not only on the part of the client but also the professional.

So if a client desiring reduction in body fat fails to see the desired outcome manifest, did you do your part? Only you can answer that. I can answer it for myself and the trainers under my employ. We are not blind to unwarranted periods of exercise abandonment, nor are we ignorant of years of habits that take time and reinforcement to modify, but we do approach each "miss" as an opportunity to influence and respond. Never do we guarantee miracles, but with a guarantee of results, clients often perceive results as miraculous. It isn't because of any superior power but rather an operational mindset that says we are responsible for what we deliver. Here are some of the further recognitions that have allowed me to help others change:

The Misinformation Maze
In the great majority of cases, when a new client relays stories of past failures, we can identify not character flaws but false beliefs resulting from misinformation. The plague of "eat less, weigh less" combined with the still-burdensome "women lifting weights get big" doom our clients to failure unless we initiate belief shifts. False beliefs will cripple the potential for thrilling outcomes, but a willingness to recognize and adjust the beliefs offers a new power for facilitating change.

The Hole in 21st-Century Medicine
I have all the admiration in the world for medical professionals, and I haven't any question about the merits of the doctors I have as allies. With that said, if we are considering the concept of "being well," the medical system has a gaping hole. The link between health insurance, visits to the doctor and prescription fulfillment have created a systemized link between diagnosis and prescription. We as fitness professionals, therefore, often conduct intake assessments with clients who walk through the door with labels. One label may say "type 2 diabetic," another may say "hypothyroidism." We meet hypertensives, middle-aged parents suffering with metabolic syndrome and menopausal women and andropausal men who struggle to find the right mix of hormonal therapies. We can work with the doctors to acknowledge that the labels are based on a moment in time, not a destiny. Just as disease takes time to manifest, it may take time with exercise and nutritional therapies to reverse, but many medicated label-wearers may be able to dismiss their labels and meds for supervised and directed lifestyle changes.

If you think I'm way out of bounds, I respect your opinion. If you are uncomfortable with my statement, "many medically diagnosed diseases are unintentionally patient-induced and can be undone," I understand.
My assertions may not be in line with conventional personal training dictum. I present them for two reasons. Firstly, they have served well for me and my clients, many of whom express their outcomes and experiences as amazing. Secondly, if we as an industry are going to find the professional recognition we aspire to, we have to challenge conventional thinking and question whether we can raise the bar.

I ask only that you consider these points, and while I can't promise personal responses to every letter and email, I embrace responses that concur or oppose the information I've shared:
  • Misinformation abounds and works to create crippling false beliefs, and we, within our own scope of practice, can influence outcomes by affecting beliefs and habits.
  • In cases of program interruption or "slipping," we can offer responsive suggestions allowing clients to adjust mindsets, inevitably leading to documented improvement.
  • We can best serve our clients by accepting that instruction must go hand-in-hand with education.
  • We can align with medical professionals to optimize outcomes, even for those diagnosed with 21st-century diseases.
  • We as an industry gain respect by acknowledging that when our clients fail, we should re-examine our own strategies and actions and accept responsibility for the outcomes we promise.

Phil Kaplan is the author of Personal Training Profits and a Secure Fitness Future and the e-program, Change Your Mind, Change the World. Respond to Phil's arguments by email at phil@philkaplan.com, or visit philkaplan.com for more information.

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