Well before you became a trainer, you probably noticed people who descended upon the gym in droves every January. By March, they were long gone. Looking back with the knowledge I've gained, I wonder how many might have become regulars had coaching started early and often. It may be too late for those I watched as a gym rat, but it's not too late for those who enter your facility. If you are letting new members fend for themselves those first critical days, they are doomed to failure. The very first sessions provide critical coaching opportunities to create the kind of relationship that will keep this client "in the fold" for a long time.


Initial meeting
Before you even begin to talk sets and reps, take some time to sit down with the client and get to know each other better. Find some quiet spot in the facility where you both feel comfortable. Begin the session by inquiring about what they do for a living, about their families, hobbies, etc. Show genuine interest and curiosity, and reveal what you can about yourself — your background, hobbies, etc.
From here, move toward a discussion of the client's goals. Why are they here? What do they hope to accomplish? Too many people enter a fitness center with vague, ill-defined goals such as "drop a few pounds", "tone up" or "get into better shape."  Weak goals lead to weak commitment. As their coach/trainer, it is important for you to help them add some muscle to their general aspirations: "How many is 'a few pounds'?" "What do you mean by 'tone up'? Describe for me how you will look if you accomplish this." "How will you know when you are in 'better shape'?" Help them establish concrete criteria which they want to meet.
Probably the most important aspect of this part of the interview would be for you to ask the client why achieving these goals is important to him or her. Sometimes you need to guide them to help them see how many areas of their lives would be improved if they met these goals and how achieving these goals may impact who they are and how they live — perhaps even how they see themselves. So ask directly, write down a list and make sure the clients want it for themselves. They can't be doing this for children, spouses, parents or physicians. Encourage them to be "greedy." It has to be for and about them.
It is also important to find out if this is the client's first venture into a facility such as yours. If so, be sensitive to the fact that it may have taken considerable courage to bring their less-than-fit bodies into an environment populated in their minds by the buff and muscular. Create some empathy by relating how you might have felt the same way on your first venture into the gym, and point out that not all of the gym members are professional bodybuilders and that most of them didn't look as good as they do now.
If it is not their first foray into a gym, ask for some details about their previous experience — what they liked, didn't like, what worked and what didn't. Most importantly, ask why they are no longer involved. Their complaints may be systemic to gym settings, and you need to point that out. If not, ask them what you can do, and what they intend to do to make the venture work this time.
As you move through this process, make sure it doesn't turn into a mini-version of the Spanish Inquisition. Pause at times, and repeat back what you've just heard. It helps relax the client, allows him or her time to reflect and perhaps add more to the conversation. Make sure to assure him or her that you are listening to what is being said — this also lets them know you understand and are on their side.
Divide and Conquer
Many of the goals your clients will offer are very long-term. Because we live in an instant-gratification culture, we all tend to become frustrated and lose interest when those long-term goals seem so far away and are seemingly unreachable. In addition, many people find the transition from a couch potato, junk food lifestyle to regular exercise and proper diet to be initially overwhelming. Often, major lifestyle overhauls are better accomplished incrementally rather than all at once.
As their coach and trainer, you can help maintain their motivation and focus by segmenting the long-term goals into shorter-term goals that are measurable, immediate and achievable. Give them something to shoot for right away and can be achieved relatively easily within a short time. This can help them see that they are capable of making changes, and it promotes a can-do attitude that can eventually compound into a new lifestyle. Their confidence will grow in themselves and will also grow in you.
Start by asking the client what he or she hopes to achieve within a three-month time frame. Perhaps it's a loss of a certain amount of weight, being fully engaged in a daily exercise program, being able to walk a certain amount of miles or minutes without stopping or a change of diet.
Now work with them to break that down into one-month goals. How much of that weight should they lose? How many minutes or miles would you expect the clients to be walking by then? How many workouts per week would you expect?
Then, start with the first week. What is the client going to do differently this week? What steps will he or she take to move forward? Notice I didn't say "may" take or "try" to take — those two phrases are verboten in this situation. Make them commit firmly, maybe by walking a half hour three times per week at lunch time or by reaching for an apple instead of a candy bar when hunger pangs hit while watching TV. These are items that are quantifiable and immediate.
Don't forget to praise and celebrate each incremental bit of progress, and urge them to look toward future improvement for those goals not yet met.
In the Gym
You are ready for your first workout session. As indicated, each session should involve some coaching. At this point, you might want to ask about their reflections and feelings about the interview session you just went through or if anything requires clarification or further explanation.
Then, ask them what did or didn't go well since you last met. Again, praise them for what went well, and instead of being judgmental regarding their shortcomings, ask what they could have done differently and what they will do differently next time. Encourage them to look to the future, and plan strategies they can employ, should they be confronted by those circumstances or similar ones down the road.
When you begin the actual workout, understand that, while you are perfectly familiar with the equipment in your gym, many of the machines can be confusing and intimidating for the average previously sedentary individual. It may be wise not to throw too much too soon at one of these clients, or you'll only frustrate and lose them. Maybe start with no more than five exercises you're sure they can perform. This builds confidence and the willingness to move onto more advanced maneuvers.
As you introduce each new exercise, explain what muscle groups it targets and why this activity is important to their goals and their lives. After each exercise, ask how they felt and whether that was something they wanted to include in their workout. Conclude each session by asking what they liked and didn't like about the entire workout. They may not like a particular exercise, but if you feel it's important, this is your opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and explain why that is important to them. Give them a feeling of empowerment, that they had a hand in planning their workout, and there's a better chance that they'll buy into and stay with the program.
Final Tips and Suggestions
Continue to expect success in some areas and shortcomings in others. Praise the success, and look upon the shortcomings as a chance to evaluate what might have been done better. Don't allow clients to dwell on their "failures." Rather, focus on the progress made and move the conversation towards the future — what they can do, what steps the clients will take to ensure success this time, maybe by increasing the amount of time walking at lunch or eating a better breakfast three days next week.
It is of most importance that you always listen to your clients. Before you respond, pause and repeat back to the clients so they understands that you listened and heard. At times, you might have to refer to the client's original goals — how achieving those goals might impact their lives. Some mild "tough love" might also be required when you are confronted by a negative behavior or thought. Ask, "Is this getting you what you want?"
Finally, remind them of their goals. Remind them of what they hoped to accomplish. Remind them of the person they want to be. Most of all, remind them why the hoped-for accomplishments are important to them.
            A former award-winning newspaper writer and editor, Frank Claps, M. Ed., CSCS, holds a master's degree in exercise science with an emphasis in adult fitness and is a certified wellness coach through Wellcoaches Corporation. He currently operates Fitness For Any Body, a personal training service in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania. For more information, contact him atbenchpress1@verizon.net.


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