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Aug. 17 2022

While we cannot do the work for our clients, we can give them the tools to succeed

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One of the greatest challenges we face as fitness professionals is motivation; not our personal motivation, but client motivation. We have the knowledge, the tools, a desire to help and perhaps even a proven track record that we have been successful in leading clients to achieve their fitness goals. But ultimately, they have to not only desire the outcome, but they have to do the work to achieve the outcome. We cannot do it for them.

This idea is reinforced by the Greek philosopher Socrates, credited with saying, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Similarly, we cannot do the work for our clients, we can only give them the tools to succeed. If the founder of Western philosophy admits the struggle, then we sure have our work cut out for us.    

This might be an obvious statement, but the clients that get results are the ones that continue to be motivated. They are the ones that adopt most of what we present to them, make progress, gain momentum and ultimately live the optimal healthy lifestyle. Results are motivation. How do we get a client to this point? Let's take a look.    

They must be ready. No matter how excited we are to help a client, they must be in the right state of mind to start. A common model for this assessment is the Transtheoretical or Stages of Change Model. This model includes:    
  • Precontemplation (no intention to change)  
  • Contemplation (recognize the need for change but not ready)  
  • Preparation (realize the need for change and start making steps toward the change)  
  • Action (doing it, practicing new healthy behavior)  
  • Maintenance (sustained behavior change)  
  • Termination (no desire to return to old behavior)     
When a client is in the precontemplation or contemplation phase, even the best trainer in the world is going to struggle to get them motivated and started on a routine. They may be coming to training sessions with good intentions, or by way of someone else’s good intentions (gift certificate) but likely, they are not wholly committed to change.     

As professionals, where we can start to make a difference, is in the preparation phase. In this phase, the client is finally ready to start to change, and with our encouragement and knowledge as reinforcement to why they should begin, their motivation starts to grow. Next, the action phase. The fun part. Now, the client is investing their time, energy and sweat into something that will pay dividends in the form of physical and even mental improvements. The action phase is the training sessions, where we have a captive audience and have the clients’ undivided attention. This is a great time to empower them and help build their confidence as it relates to their fitness progress. In the maintenance phase, clients will start to realize the full benefit of making an exercise routine part of their new lifestyle and hopefully their inactive and unhealthy past is terminated.    

So, to revise the Socrates quote with a fitness professionals touch; “I cannot motivate anybody to do anything. I can only make them think.” Frankly, they must take the initiative, make the commitment and do the work; we are just the guide along the way.      

They must be aware. No matter where a client is in the process, they must be aware that health and fitness is transient, and if they don’t keep working on it or making it part of their daily lifestyle, they can relapse. As personal trainers we have a lot of influence on their fitness once they have tasted some success. Here are a few tips to help them stay motivated, committed and moving continuously toward their fitness and wellness goals.    
  1. Know the barriers — Help your clients identify the things that impede their progress. Maybe its screen time, too little sleep, mindless snacking, poor time management; help them analyze their daily routine to see what barriers they face and find simple strategies to overcome them.  
  2. Positive attitude and self-talk — In the action phase, they start to gain motivation as they gain confidence. Help them foster the growth mindset, in which they continually gain knowledge and make progress. Reinforce that they are in control and help them gain a positive attitude toward the work they do and the change it produces.  
  3. Control the environment — Even the most motivated can have weakness sometimes. The more conducive the environment to wellness the higher the rate of adherence. If a client struggles with late night snacking, don’t rely on willpower, just have them remove the unhealthy options from the house.    
  4. Shaping — For both ourselves and our clients, we want results, and we want it now. We must be the voice of reason and get them to take baby steps. Find small things that they can change that over time will add up to big results. Start with shorter training sessions to get them acclimated versus high-frequency, high-intensity, or have them eliminate one unhealthy food choice from their diet instead of doing major diet overhaul. Too much too soon can be overwhelming resulting in a relapse on their fitness journey.  
  5. Reward — Talk to your client about working toward something. This could be as simple as just feeling better, or putting check marks on the calendar to signify workout days, or it could be bigger, like new clothes or even a vacation. Whatever the reward that helps motivate them, make sure when it’s achieved that you work together to stay on track and reach the next milestone.     
They must find a reason. Again, we are certainly excited for and supportive of our clients, but they have to personally find the reason to make the commitment. It can’t be because others want them to. I simplify the reasons to engage in a fitness program to this: wanting to look better, feel better and function better. These three things cover the “why” of exercise engagement.
  • Look better. There is no shame in a little vanity. Clients should want to physically look better. Being comfortable in their skin and getting compliments from family and friends goes a long way for self-confidence. Feel better. Regular exercise can increase energy levels and productivity; it can help manage anxiety and depression and even promote a positive attitude and optimism.
  • Function better. When exposed to regular exercise, the body certainly increases strength and endurance, helping to perform tasks with undue fatigue. Additionally, there are physiological reactions that improve such as resting heart rate, metabolism, circulation and bone health.
As fitness professionals, we know the benefits of exercise and if we can help our clients experience that, their motivation heightens and their commitment to the fitness lifestyle strengthens. That is no easy task, but employing some of these strategies can help us help our clients.  

Jim Romagna has nearly 30 years of experience in the fitness/wellness/strength and conditioning field. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer through the NSCA. Additionally, Jim is the Department Chair of the Health, Wellness and Sport Department at the University of Dubuque where he has also taught for the past 15 years. Jim spent 7 years as a college strength coach, 10 years as the strength coach for the USHL Dubuque Fighting Saints. In 2016 Jim launched MERGE Performance Institute (MPI), which is built on four pillars: fitness, performance, sports medicine and education. Jim has a master’s in physical education and a doctorate in educational leadership. Follow on Instagram @jimromagna or email