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Top Personal Trainers Understand the Pivot Point

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

Knowing what to say isn’t as important as knowing when to keep quiet.

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The following is a guest post by Carolyn Appel. Every trainer is in the profession of changing lives through changing behaviour. Carolyn gives us some of her own personal strategies when dealing with “stuck” clients. If you’re interested in submitting a guest post please check out the contribution page.

I recently had a client thank me. It wasn’t gratitude for something I had said, but rather for what I had not. Knowing that Donald hadn’t exercised in between our weekly sessions (for months), I chose not to say anything about it.

Any comment from me would have only added to the disappointment he felt in himself for being negligent. And guilt certainly isn’t the foundation upon which lasting behavior changes are made.

Therefore, I stay silent about Don’s failings and speak up about the good progress he’s made during our sessions.

Naturally, it can be frustrating when he doesn’t hold up his end. I often feel that I want him to do better than he wants it for himself. I also realize that, as his trainer, I have an obligation to nudge and encourage Don to change the lifestyle that led him to call me initially.

That phone call was his first step towards changing his habits but that doesn’t mean that he was ready to make all of the other necessary adjustments right away. Patience is key, for both of us, so that he can slowly absorb my teachings and take action to reprioritize his behaviors.

Often, a catalytic event will cause someone to wake up from their years-long coma of being hyper-caffeinated, undernourished, overstressed and physically-deteriorated. It may be that the “fat” pants no longer fit or perhaps it’s the disgust that it only takes an incomprehensibly small act of exertion to get out of breath, to jar a sleeping soul into action.

Whatever the reason, people arrive at their pivotal moments on their own.

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In my experience, no amount of begging from the wife or nagging from the doctor will cause a person to change. It has to come from them.

And it usually requires a person to hit a low point, as difficult as that may be to watch from the outside. Especially as a health professional, who knows about the long-term repercussions of bodily neglect and abuse, I have to battle impatience while waiting for a client to reach this point. It may take him weeks, months, and sometimes years while I am working with him to make a change.

Trainers get into this profession to help people. We are a caring group who wants our clients to look, feel, and function better. Our way of showing that caring can sometimes border on overbearing by airing our frustrations to the clients about what they aren’t doing.

Of course we know that training once or twice will not erase the damage and neglect that takes place the rest of the week. However, I feel that for my chronically-negligent clients (there are a few), harping on what they aren’t doing has the potential to erode their confidence and trust in me, ultimately weakening my long-term influence on them.

If clients, like Donald, aren’t moved to action by my weekly reminders then I change my strategy and back off. This removes any negative feelings of guilt while allowing him to realize that, although we are in this training process together, the onus is truly on him to make the change. All I can do is be there to guide him with information and encouragement [if and] when he reaches that pivot point.

Here are some ways to help your “stuck” clients make changes:

Ask Questions

Finding out what barriers they perceive to be preventing them from making the change. This can go a long way towards helping both of you understand the client’s stagnation. In a non-judgmental way, and with a genuine effort to understand their struggles, try asking the following open-ended questions:

– What prevents you from getting to the gym more often?
– What do you think would help you get to the gym? Change your eating habits?

Decisional Balance chart

Another great tool to have your clients fill out on their own to think more deeply about the benefits and costs of making a change and to identify the reasons why they haven’t yet made the change. Keep in mind that this chart can be used for any behavior, not just a health-related one.

1. Identify what behavior the person wants to change.
2. Fill out the chart honestly to determine what the benefits are of changing and what specific reasons are preventing the change from being made.

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Some follow-up questions that may help direct your clients’ thinking about making a desired change:

—- How long have you been contemplating this change?
—- What is the primary reason you haven’t made the change yet?
—- Do the benefits of making a change outweigh the benefits of not making a change?
—- What opportunities can you see for personal development by making this behavior change?
– —What steps will you take to put into action the desired change?


The more repeated exposure your clients have to the desired behavior the greater the probability that they will actually make a change.

You may find yourself repeating the same mantra during your sessions: “Do your cardio,” “Don’t forget to stretch,” “Stop eating pizza.” I also send email reminders and occasionally leave voice messages to reinforce what we discuss during our sessions.

Show positive examples

When the Olympic trials were on I called a client who, a former gymnast, was just getting back into training. She saw the magnificent athleticism and strength of those women and it inspired her to push harder during our sessions and on her own.

As a trainer you are constantly being viewed as an example of superior physical health, whether you like it or not. Clients look to you to epitomize many of the qualities they are training to achieve.

Carry yourself with positive energy and poise—embodying good physical health—because the association with you will help clients move in that direction.

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Be an example for your clients.


The fact that they hired you reflects their desire for help because they recognized that they can’t do it alone. Be patient. BE VERY PATIENT.

Keep on Movin’


Got any strategies you’d like to share for “stuck” clients? What are your go-to strategies for client behaviour change? Comment below.


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How to be a personal trainer carolyn appelCAROLYN APPEL received her Master’s degree in Motor Learning and Control from Teachers College, Columbia University and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA. With a background in competitive, collegiate-level tennis, Ms. Appel has built a career on her passion for fitness, athletics, and skill development. She has worked in the fitness industry for the last decade and has written articles for numerous publications including Muscle and Fitness, Allure Magazine, and on her blog at
photo credit: Kalense Kid, Vector Hugo,


About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is the creator and head coach of the PTDC and has a distaste for third person bios ... Hey, I'm Jon and I'd have to say that this site is pretty awesome. Thanks for being here. If you're interested in my brand new book, it's called Ignite the Fire (revised, updated, and expanded). My team and I have also created the first Academy and certification for online trainers. Click here to check out the Online Trainer Academy.