Jonathan Goodman often writes this about client motivation:

“A great trainer doesn’t have to design a great workout. She has to design a good enough workout, and get her clients to want to do the workout.”

But motivation isn’t easy, even with in-person clients. Getting online clients to follow their program is harder. But getting online clients to work out consistently at home is hardest of all.

That’s true even if they choose to exercise at home. When something like the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 forces them to turn their living room into a home gym, motivation can be a monumental challenge.

Fortunately, there’s a way to get them going on the days when they’re stuck.

Setting the stage for successful home workouts

Let’s begin with a few assumptions:

First, your online clients want to exercise, even if they don’t love doing it. Maybe they don’t want to exercise at home, but they genuinely, sincerely want to be active and healthy.

Second, you’ve given them a great workout program, one that’s tailored to their abilities, goals, preferences, space, and equipment (or lack thereof).

Third, you’ve given them the obvious advice:

  • Set up a dedicated space for their home workouts.
  • Schedule time in their calendar, as they would if they were training with you in person.
  • Take advantage of the benefits of home exercise, like blasting any music they want, or wearing clothes they’d never be caught dead in outside their house.

The problem is that, despite their best intentions and your best guidance, they struggle to follow through.

In my experience, the problem often comes down to an all-or-nothing mentality. They believe there’s no point even starting if they can’t do the entire workout. If they don’t think they have the energy or focus for 40 or 50 minutes of exercise, why bother?

That’s where this one simple prompt comes in handy.

The value of just getting started

When a client admits they’re struggling with motivation, make the following request:

“Can you give it five minutes?”

Or, alternatively:

“Can you do one exercise?”

Follow up with this:

“If you still aren’t feeling it after five minutes , that’s it. You’re done. You gave it a shot, and this just isn’t your day.”

Now comes the most important part:

“However, if you start to feel better after five minutes , try another five minutes . And if you feel even better after 10 minutes , keep going. Don’t think about anything but the next five or 10 minutes .

"If you finish the workout, that’s awesome. If you don’t, hey, at least you did something on a day you didn’t feel like doing anything. Either way, we’ll call it a win.”

It’s not exactly a new idea. We’ve been telling people for ages that showing up is the most important part of any program.

Which is true if we’re talking about showing up at the gym. Nobody walks into their health club, decides they aren’t feeling it, and turns around and goes home. If nothing else, there’s the sense they’ll be judged by others if they don’t at least go through the motions of working out.

But for home workouts, there’s no social pressure. Nobody can see if you’re working or shirking.

Another challenge of home exercise is replicating the surge of adrenaline many of us feel just by walking into the gym and being around people who’re getting their work in.

The “just do five minutes” or “just do one exercise” prompt addresses multiple challenges for clients who work out at home:

  • It’s easy to remember.
  • It shrinks the change, minimizing the barrier to taking action and moving forward.
  • It reframes “success.” Instead of making the client feel like a failure if they don’t complete the workout, it tells them something is better than nothing, and something more is better than something less. Paradoxically, they’re more likely to do the entire routine when they feel less pressure.
  • It gets the client moving and the juices flowing. This is especially important for the type of client who feeds off the energy of the gym, and misses being around people.

How to get the client moving

Now we’ll look at how to use the prompt with two types of clients who struggle with home workouts:

  • Someone who doesn’t like working out
  • Someone who likes to be pushed in the gym

The client who likes to be pushed in the gym

Let’s say this is one of the home workouts you designed for your client:

1A One-leg squat to a chair

1B Push-up

2A Inverted row

2B One-leg hip thrust

3A Plank with arm march

3B Lateral raise

If you gave them the “just do five minutes” prompt, you can ask them to alternate 1A and 1B, perhaps one set of each per minute.

Same with the next five minutes, if they choose to continue: Alternate 2A and 2B, one set per minute.

If you said, “just do one exercise,” choose a compound movement. From this workout, the best choices would probably be the push-up or inverted row.

On the final set, tell the client to do as many reps as they can with good technique, no matter how many reps the workout specifies. If they can do more, do more. The idea is, “last set, best set.”

When they complete the last set, if they feel like doing one more exercise, choose another compound movement. Have them repeat the process, including the big finish.

Even if the client stops there, that’s still a pretty good 10-minute or two-exercise workout.

The client who doesn’t like working out

You’ll need a different strategy for a client who aspires to be active and healthy but doesn’t enjoy the process—especially when the process doesn’t even get them out of the house.

So instead of saying “just do one exercise,” you’ll specify that it should be the exercise they enjoy the most (or hate the least). If it’s lateral raises, that’s great. There are no good and bad options.

It doesn’t even have to be an exercise from your program. If they like doing curls or crunches or jumping jacks, give it your blessing.

You can also try this variation on the “just do five minutes” prompt:

“Pick two of your favorite songs. Press play and start exercising. When the songs end, your workout ends.”

If they want to continue, that’s two more songs. If they don’t, give the client a virtual high-five, and talk about what they’ll do the next time.

Using songs as a timer works best without traditional sets and reps—yoga or shadow boxing, for example. You can also just ask the client to dance to the two songs. “Dance like nobody’s watching” is an easy prompt when there’s literally nobody who could watch.

Music also functions as a motivator, which is both intuitive and backed by research. Working out with music increases mood and effort and reduces perceived exertion.

Final thoughts about motivating clients for home workouts

I can sum it up in four words: Action first, motivation second.

As Newton said, a body in motion stays in motion. It’s easier to keep going than to get going. Thus, if you can get the client moving, even if it’s just for a few minutes, chances are they’ll feel better about the task, and their ability to do it.

But even if they decide to stop after one exercise or five minutes, at least they did something. And that still counts.