Most personal trainers love working out. They love everything about it – learning about fitness, pushing themselves hard, just being at the gym. Many got started in the industry because the gym had become a second home to them. However it is important for trainers to realize that the vast majority of clients - particularly new clients - do not feel this way. They may loathe the idea of exercising regularly, sweating, pushing themselves to exhaustion. They may hate the gym. I have had many clients tell me that sat outside in their car for 20 minutes psyching themselves up just to walk in the door for their first session. Outlined here are some guidelines that you, as a personal trainer, may find useful in dealing with clients that are intimidated by the gym.
Be Friendly – This seems obvious, but if you pride yourself on how buff and badass you are, you have to realize that to non-fitness people that translates into ‘scary’. I would say the more physically fit and intimidating you are, the more you need to go above and beyond to be friendly. Much of this will come from your body language. Don’t stand there with your arms crossed over your chest with your perfect posture while you are looking down your nose at your out of shape client. Engage them, use their name repeatedly, shake their hand politely, and have open body language. Smile with your mouth and your eyes, practice reflective listening, and be genuinely happy that you get to walk down the road with this person as they begin their fitness journey.
Introduce the client to other individuals in the gym – I like to think of the gym I work at as my house and the client is now a guest in my house. Just like if I had a new friend come to a party, I would introduce them to my other friends; I find introducing new clients to other people in the gym to be a good tool to help the person feel more at ease and relaxed. Instead of just seeing that “big dude on the bench” now that person is Sam, he runs a restaurant. Instead of the “fit chick who is always on the stairmaster” that is Jane and she has lost 50 lbs and has 2 kids. Introduce the new member to some regulars in the gym and also some gym workers they may regularly run into, this will help them feel more comfortable while they are there and will make them more likely to return.
Find some private areas – In the beginning clients may be scared of the gym. They may not want to be watched or judged for a multitude of reasons. They might be scared of the free weight area of the fitness center. You might find a more private area where you can train them away from all of the eyes in the gym. If you are not sure how they feel you can always give them a choice – for example you might say “would like to start your workout over here in the dumbbell area or do you want to go to the Group Exercise room, it is empty now” and then let the client choose what they prefer.
Let them experience success – Many new clients have tried some form of exercise or nutrition plan before and they ultimately failed. Often they will have failed many times. They may even be (subconsciously) expecting to fail again this time around. To help start a more positive experience, let them experience some success. Put them on relatively easy to learn machines, start off with some basic moves, pick a weight you know they can lift or a speed you know they can maintain, and then go from there. Progressive overload works just fine even when you start out extremely light because remember previously this person was doing nothing. You want them to think “oh, that wasn’t so bad, I could/would do that again in a day or two, it was almost fun.”
Don’t punish/kill them – To tie-in with the previous recommendation, don’t work them too hard, punish them with exercises, or leave them gasping for breath. They don’t have to make up for lost time and they should not be punished for some less than ideal behavioral choices they have made in the past. In addition you don’t have to prove how good of a trainer you are by working them super hard. Doing this will negatively effect – in a very significant way – your wallet. Remember, the number one reason why people quit personal training is because it is too hard. Hopefully this client will be yours for months if not years in the future. As their fitness progresses so can the workouts, but they can start off very easy. Avoid complex moves like the Olympic lifts with new clients – heck I would not even show a new client a barbell back squat on day one. Start with something simple – a box squat, a goblet squat, a bodyweight squat, a leg press. Then progress from there. Don’t breakout the prowler on day one. All it takes is just a slight overestimation of what the client can do and now they are gasping for breath, praying for the session to end and you simply confirmed what they already knew – they hate exercise. We want to change that. We want our clients to love exercise because when they do, our jobs become so easy. People will continue to do the things they love indefinitely. People will, at some point in time, stop doing the things they hate.
Be positive – You want to be positive with this person. They may have a lot of feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, etc about their fitness level or their body. Don’t demean them in any way and don’t assume certain things. You might be good at fitness but you probably suck at something else. I don’t know anything about programming computer code. If I signed up to learn code I wouldn’t want some code master mocking me for not knowing some of the basics. The same applies here. Be their guide, their teacher, and help them learn and progress from where they are now. Much of this will come from your body language as well. If you are teaching them a push-up but your body language is saying “I can’t believe you can’t even do a push-up” they will pick up on that. Remember the bulk of communication is non-verbal. I have had many clients tell me that previous trainers made them cry on the first session. This is obviously not good. Focus on being positive with the client and let them experience success.
Emphasize the Journey – Clients are often embarrassed about where they are fitness wise, but remind them it is a journey. Everyone that is strong didn’t start out that way. Everyone with a great VO2 max started out with just an average one. That is one of the great things about fitness. You can’t buy it, you have to work for it. And when you do work hard on it, it will improve, often very significantly. Almost no one is completely content with their current fitness level, everyone is working on themselves, and it is through this journey – which will have ups and downs – that we really gain all of the positive things such as confidence, determination, tenacity, and believing in our self. If you have a personal story about your own fitness journey, feel free to share it with your clients. Showing the clients you are “human” and not some amazing fitness robot will help them believe they can become the person they want to be.
Don’t be judgmental – Planet Fitness’s big push is the judgment free zone (leaving aside the irony of them judging and kicking out all of the fit people in their gym) and this appeals to many people. You have not lived the person’s life and you don’t know their struggles. You may be good at fitness but you may have struggles in another area. You want to believe in the person and you want the person to start believing in themselves. Many times clients will have had such strong negative influences from family, friends, co-workers etc that finding just one person that takes them as they are and believes in them, that can be the catalyst they need for change. If you can be an advocate for that client and support them unconditionally, honestly that is often worth the price of admission alone. A quote I like is: Be kind, for those you meet are on a hard road.
Allow only positive self-talk in the gym – It is amazing to hear how many clients, particularly new ones, will speak negatively about themselves to their trainer. “I can’t do that, I can’t lift this, I can’t run this fast, I can’t lose weight, I am no good at this.” Once you become aware of this the frequency that it occurs with some people is really astounding. They are putting themselves down constantly. My rule in the gym is “no negative self-talk.” If I catch a client doing this then we have to reword the statement to make it true. If a client says “I can’t lift that” we might change that to “I can’t lift that today but soon I will be able to.” Of course if I am doing my job right they will be experiencing a lot of success with me on that day and every day. Sometimes all people need is just a one hour break from all that negative talk in their head, and once they become aware of it they are able to change that for the better as well.
Working with new clients, particularly ones that are intimidated by exercise, isn’t easy but it can be very rewarding. The good news is all it takes is a few positive sessions for that client to start changing their opinion about exercise and fitness. Exercise IS awesome, being fit IS awesome – we just have to make our clients realize that it is not just the end result that is great, but the act of working toward it that matters the most.