Lynn did three workouts with me and then she whined and complained and told me the sky was falling. I went to her house, dragged her by her collar, put a medicine ball in her hand and forced her to do squat jumps. From that point forward I kept her under lock and key, letting her out only to do her exercise sessions and to eat her supportive meals. After four weeks she thanked me.
OK, maybe that didn't really happen (or maybe I've been watching too many late-night episodes of Criminal Minds), but Lynn really did whine and complain. As a new client, she came up with every imaginable excuse. "Too tired," "too busy," "too sore," "it's too rainy," and to top it off, "the car broke down." Do I have empathy for people? Of course I do, but there's a difference between fending legitimate obstacles, most of which we can play a role in helping clients overcome, and rolling over in the face of flat out excuses that prove crippling to desired outcomes.
If adherence is going to be a struggle, the teeter point usually happens in week two or three of a new client's program. At the onset, the energy output appears to overshadow the reward. Motivation only goes so far. Guidance and two-way communication become vital. Add in an understanding of the workings of the human psyche and suddenly the science of adherence becomes something we can master. Without that mastery, we become victims, much as our clients, of those correctable but overpowering excuses.
Years ago I had a tendency to label teetering clients. They were "unmotivated," or "looking for the magic pill." Today I know better. They are simply misguided, well-intentioned people who need mindset shifts and a living body of evidence in order to achieve virtually any positive physical outcome they seek. Once I came to terms with that understanding, the challenge of adherence went away.
Lynn was in fact a challenge for me. She was burdened by negative talk. She was very connected with the words "can't" and "but." It took patience, dedication and a bit of rewiring to get her to the point where she became a glowing testimonial for the virtues of stick-to-it-iveness, and I'd have to estimate that she has sent me, directly or indirectly, well over 100 new clients and customers.
The investment in overcoming the limitations of a stuck mindset is well worth it, as long as you have the stuff to stick it out. It's important that you understand that your clients won't always think as you do and what they say one day may be defeated by some daunting inner voice the next. Just as you'd modify a movement for someone who has a limitation, you can modify your words, your approach and your interaction for someone who is struggling with negative thought.
The Four Steps
When I opened my first personal training studio, I realized compelling people through what I've coined "the four steps of commitment" required evidence, prediction, guidance, support and sometimes a bit of subtle force. If I could get a client to comply for four weeks, whether it was through shifts in energy, strength or confidence, I could demonstrate at least a bit of evidence that the program was "working." The adherence issue was resolved. You can do the same, in every single case.
Let's take a closer look at each of the four steps:
1. Consult
I may have been the first personal trainer to charge for consultations, and it was a huge positive turning point in my business and my career. I learned the hard way that "free consultation" failed to evoke a sense of value. I started offering consultations with a money-back guarantee. Of course, that put some initial pressure on me. I had to deliver value! I decided then that my consultations wouldn't be fitness assessments but rather 20 minutes of getting to know the person's primary goals, primary obstacles and previous attempts at achieving those goals; 20 minutes of understanding what they're doing now (exercise, nutrition, lifestyle); and the remaining 20 minutes providing valuable insights and direction that would do two things: one, prove my value; and two, inspire the individual to become a paying client.
Whether you incorporate some modicum of that process now, or whether your consultations are completely different than the one I described, the two outcomes should be the same. Prove your value. Inspire the individual to become a paying client. In that lies the first step of commitment.
In the consultation, you benefit greatly from tools. I became so entrenched at one point in documenting results that my walls became a museum. I had not only before-and-after photos but client belts, pants and awards. My walls became full so I started a three-ring binder and wound up with six thick binders all filled with evidence that what I'm selling "works." I called it my Arsenal of Evidence. It allowed me to show every consulting prospect someone like them who achieved what they wanted to achieve, and that was the hammer.
The structure of the consultation, a commitment to deliver value, and an arsenal of evidence turned every consultation into a new client. That leads us to the next step in the commitment process…
2. Recurring Sessions
Every one of my clients had to commit to an "every." It might be one day a week, two days a week, three, or in some cases four, but I never wanted to look at my calendar with a client looking over my shoulder trying to figure out when the next session would take place. It was automatic. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 3 PM. They'd give me one session paid in advance. I called that a retainer. In the event that they failed to give 48 hours' notice for a no-show or cancellation, they'd forfeit the retainer.
While charging for the consultation was the first strategy that kicked my business forward, this was every bit as powerful. It put me in a position where I could predict my weekly revenues with accuracy, I could get paid only for what I'd serviced (rather than selling packages where I "owed" the client sessions) and it was on me to motivate each client to show up just one more time. As long as I did that consistently, I never lost a client. Each session, not only did I silently assess performance and attitude, but I also would assess mindset, and in the first four weeks I'd devote some time to sitting at a table and talking about the client experience and expectation. When I noted a hiccup, I could re-chart the course and keep the client connected. Because the sessions recurred, and each session was, in essence, covered by the retainer, my no-shows and cancels were virtually eliminated.
3. Adherence
Adherence refers to stickiness. You have to create a program that the client finds adequately challenging, within his or her capacity, and that the client fully understands. In addition, you have to establish a level of professional respect (different than "friendship"), a high level of trust and the client must feel that at any given moment you have his or her best interest at heart.
4. Milestones
The milestones are those achievements upon which you build your arsenal. Be deliberate in what you tell your clients to anticipate (i.e. "you'll likely see a strength increase before you notice fat reduction" or "once you stabilize blood sugar, you'll find your energy becomes consistent and you're more equipped to release fat"). With the right anticipatory messages, even if weight loss is the ultimate goal, strength increase and energy increase prove motivating as steps toward the goal.
Capture milestones. Document them, and make them multimedia. I don't mean you have to set up an in-house theater, but a good mix of short testimonial video clips, before and after photos, written thank yous specifying specific gratifying outcomes and audio clips helps people connect with a genuine vision of what they previously only hoped was possible.
I believe adherence is cultivated at the onset. Too many trainers try to "save" the client when the client is ready to leap. By considering the four steps with each and every new client, you can stop labeling and blaming those whiners and wimps and convert them into thrilling examples for your own arsenal of evidence.
Phil Kaplan is a fitness leader, trainer and educator. He has created courses and programs to help personal trainers find positions of respect and reward. Visit or explore his Be Better offerings