Becky was overweight and was looking to lose 50lbs in time for a tropical vacation that she'd just booked with some friends. She had just 6 months to reach her goal and was adamant that she was "willing to do anything" in order to get there.

You've probably worked with clients like Becky before. What's your approach to helping them?

There is a temptation to follow the client's "I will do anything" lead. Preparing a strict meal plan and devising a daily exercise routine seems like the obvious approach to help the client succeed. But is that really a recipe for success?

Often, it isn't.

Many clients think they need one thing, while they really need something quite different. It's your job to be able to properly assess new clients and provide them with a tailored personal training program that's suitable to their actual needs and abilities.

transtheoretical model of behavior change | thePTDC | training assessment for clients

The Stage of Behavior Change

The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change assesses a person's readiness to act on a new healthier behavior.

The diagram below shows how a person can move from a place of not wanting to change at all (Precontemplation), to considering and learning about change (Contemplation), then preparing for change (Preparation), adopting new changes (Action), and finally being able to maintain those positive changes over time (Maintenance):

Why Determining a Client's Stage of Change is So Important

Let's go back to Becky. At first glance it seems as though she might be in the Action stage of change. After all, she did take time to visit a personal trainer and she was enthusiastic about getting started with a new weight-loss plan.

Unfortunately for Becky, and many similar clients, her true stage of change can't be determined simply by measuring her enthusiasm. The start of something new is usually quite exciting and therefore it's typical for new clients to want to adopt big changes all at once.

As you may have experienced with your own clients, once the novelty of a new fitness program wears off their true stage of change will begin to appear.

This is why it's common for people who are looking to get in shape to start exercising five or even seven days per week. They may not have exercised in years, but wanting instant results has them jumping in with both feet.

You can imagine how this plays out.

It doesn't take long for exercise and dieting to seem like a chore. Soon workouts are skipped and unhealthy snacks creep back in, and eventually this person gives up entirely. They feel like a failure and might even conclude that they "just aren't able to get in shape."

If you take on a new client and fail to properly assess her stage of change, then you risk similar client burn out. This leads to disappointment for your client and reflects poorly on the service you provided.

Fortunately, there is a better way.

Asking the 3 Crucial Questions

We know that identifying a new client's true stage of change is important, but how are we able to do so with any measure of confidence?

The following are 3 Crucial Questions that every client intake process should include:

1. What have you tried so far to make progress towards your goal?

If your client's answer includes a laundry list of attempts to get in shape, there's a strong likelihood that she isn't truly in the Action stage of change. While she wants to see results, there is something that is preventing her from following through with the steps needed to get there.

2. What do you think has held you back from getting the results you want?

Some clients will list external factors as the reason behind their lack of success. For example, your client might "have too much stress at work," or she may find the hours at her gym "just too convenient," or perhaps her husband "brings home too much junk food."

When external factors are the main hindrance to your client's success, this too is an indication that she is not in the Action stage of change. She is relying on things outside of her control to excuse her behavior.

3. Image a scale from 1 to 5 where a 1 = "Not a chance" while a 5 = "100% for sure." How likely would you be to exercise for at least __ minutes __ days next week?

This question is designed as a reality check. Some clients will quickly say that they're ready to exercise every single day, but when this statement is quantified it becomes a little easier to obtain a realistic perspective.

For example, your client may give a "3" for her ability to exercise 30 minutes per day for 7 days next week. She has work commitments and social obligations that might make it hard on some days.

This statement is so revealing. She may be in the Action stage, but her willingness to adopt change is actually much less than she originally communicated.

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Identifying the Right Stage of Change

Asking the 3 Crucial Questions is the first step. Next it's important to be able to interpret the results and apply what you've learned about your client.

Let's use Becky once again as an example. Here's how she answered our 3 intake questions:

1. What have you tried so far to make progress towards your goal?

"I haven't tried very much to be honest. I did try jogging a little bit but I didn't really like doing it. I've also tried to limit how much dessert I eat. I have a sweet tooth and I know that doesn't help."

2. What do you think has held you back from getting the results you want?

"I'm not really sure what works. I read about all these different diets that help celebrities lose weight but I never know if they are really effective or safe for me to try. I also don't really like exercise, so I haven't ever stuck with it for very long."

3. Image a scale from 1 to 5 where a 1 = "Not a chance" while a 5 = "100% for sure." How likely would you be to exercise for at least 30 minutes 3 days next week?

(Note that this question was tailored based on Becky's previous statement about not enjoying exercise. Asking her to exercise 7 days per week is out of the question)

"I could likely do it next week if I know you're going to ask me about it!" she laughs.

Based on her answers, what stage of change do you think Becky is currently in?

It seems as though she is looking for guidance, education, and accountability to get started. She wants to start making some changes but has never found a path that she is confident in or one that she can carry out for any length of time.

Becky is in the Contemplation stage, perhaps bordering on the Preparation stage.

Fitness Programming Based on Stage of Change

When working with any client it is important to promote mastery. When she is able to master new tasks her confidence will build and her desire for greater challenges will increase. This is how she'll move from one stage of change to the next.

To help Becky experience a sense of mastery, it would be appropriate to help her answer questions she has already alluded to.

What does healthy eating look like?

How can dangerous fad diets be spotted?

How much dessert is okay?

What forms of exercise might be enjoyable?

How much exercise is good as a starting place?

Discussing these topics may not take very long and can drastically increase Becky's confidence that she is ready to take some small action steps.

In general, there are specific ways to help clients based on their current stage of change:

Those who are in the Precontemplation stage need to identify reasons why change is worthwhile. Begin with discussions that help them identify how change will improve their life. Using statements like "Imagine what it would be like to..." or "Think about how things would be different if..." can often help them visualize the benefits of change.

A client who is in the Contemplation stage will often benefit from discussing how to achieve the changes they desire and what sacrifices will be required along the way.

Once in the Preparation stage a client is ready to start thinking about specifics. Help her map out what her change will look like and what steps are needed to take action. This might include examining her schedule for convenient times to exercise. Or it could involve helping her buy a new pair of shoes or appropriate clothing for exercise. Your job is to help make the transition to the Action stage as seamless and unintimidating as possible.

The Action stage is reached when a client sees the benefits of change, understands what is required to achieve that change, and is prepared to begin that journey.

Once your client is in the Action stage, you can begin to implement your fitness plan. Just keep in mind her answer to the third Crucial Question so that your plan is rolled out at an appropriate pace.

After your has experienced a sense of mastery while following your plan, she can be given new challenges in the Maintenance stage. You may offer more challenging exercise routines, increased exercise frequency, or some tweaks to help improve her eating habits.

During the Maintenance stage it is important to reinforce why her work is valuable and worthwhile. Doing so can prevent clients from "falling off the wagon" or moving backwards through the stages of change.

Getting Your Clients What They Want

As a fitness professional it is your job to assess what new your client really needs. Avoid simply listening to what they want or what they think they need.

Use the 3 Crucial Questions (or add some of your own) to learn how ready for action your new client really is. Taking this approach allows you to keep the long-term best interests of your client in mind, which is good for their success and for your reputation as a high-value personal trainer.