This is embarrassing.

It's a story about how I lost a personal training client, I'll call him "X" and how I screwed up losing the client and thousands of dollars of business to a trainer down the street.

It's a story about the importance of listening more to what a client isn't saying than what he or she is.

I'll start at the beginning...

...It Was a Rainy Day in August

Well maybe it was raining. Or it was sunny. I don't remember. Rainy just flowed better. So picture a rainy day in August--overcast skies, warm and muggy--one of those days plagued by lethargy.

I was the only one in the gym, it was around 1pm; the middle of the mid-day lull. X walked in, "I was just passing by and thought I'd have a look at the place" he said.

After complimenting his red leather jacket, I immediately noticed how much of a genuinely good person X seemed to be. He was talkative, had a big smile, and asked a lot of intelligent questions. We got along great from the start.

"I'm an actor," X said. "We just finished filming a season for the series I'm working on so I've got a bit of time and want to put on some muscle."

A younger guy, 33 years old, he seemed to be healthy and had a good frame. I'd worked with some actors and musicians before and was familiar with the ebb and flow of their lives and stresses that being in the public eye hold so could talk candidly about this.

He had 3 months to work hard and was ready to go. Money didn't seem to be an issue but, to be honest, I always tried to avoid thinking about it and would start by pitching the package I thought would work best for the client regardless of perceived affluence.

Walking back to my office, I closed the door and asked about his diet. It seemed quite good. He was into the organic trend and seemed to believe that he was intensely in-tune with his body--something that, in retrospect, I should have identified as a potential red flag.

We then spoke about his injury history. He said that his osteopath, and named him by his first name, said that he was OK to exercise but needs to be careful about 3 or 4 different things.

I wrote down all of the ailments but thought it odd that if X were so broken as his osteo seemed to believe, why was he walking normally and wanting to exercise intensely.

I did his assessment on the spot and he seemed to be in perfect health, none of his injuries showed in my assessment and at no point did he say there was any pain.

I decided that the 50 session package costing over $4,000 was the best option. At 3x training per week for 3 months, it would be sufficient. He balked at the price so I went to my second option--20 sessions split over two payments a month apart. He paid for the first installment and we were good to go.

I already had a full schedule but X was able to be flexible and come in to workout midday, so we scheduled the first session for noon the next day.

Then I Got to Work and So Did He

For the next two hours I researched all of his "ailments" and built the best damn workout I could put together. It was a 3 month plan--2 week transitional period, 2 4-week hypertrophy programs, and a 2 week peak at the end right before he was set to start filming again.

Noon came the next day and I excitedly took him through the program, the reasoning behind it, what he should expect, and both when and how I expected the gains to come.

One of the ailments that the osteopath had told X he had was an impingement in the hip so I decided to start with a regression of the squat--the first day we worked to a 25lbs DB goblet for 2 sets of 8 reps at a 4010 tempo (4 second eccentric, 0 second pause, 1 second concentric, 0 second pause).

Another ailment was an impingement in the left shoulder, so I started X out with an incline neutral grip DB press with 20lbs for 2 sets of 8 reps at a 4021 tempo telling him to squeeze his chest at the top.

The first workout went great. X worked hard and I figured that he would be a bit sore so took a minute to describe DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)--why it happens, what to expect, and how to manage it--gave him a couple of nutrition guidelines--and booked a workout with him two days later, on Friday.

Friday Came, and it Was the Beginning of the End

X walked in a bit more serious. He told me that he was in pain after the workout and went to go see his osteopath Thursday who told him that he needed to "take it easy".

The pain vs. sore discussion was one that I was familiar with so I went into my line of questioning:

  • Is there any sharpness? No.
  • Does it feel like anything is pinching or stabbing? No.
  • Does the pain wake you up at night? (stress fractures are known to wake people up at night because of the increased demand for blood flow) No.
  • Did it feel more like a dull ache? Yes.
  • Was it tender to touch? Yes.
  • Did you drink a lot of water? Yes.
  • Did you ice? Yes.

In my mind, there was no question that X experienced DOMS and wasn't injured in anyway. The pain was gone two days later.

However, this put in a precarious position--X had been seeing an osteopathic doctor for years who convinced him that he was broken. I believed that X was fine and believed that he needed to both increase his pain threshold and learn to recover better. After 30 minutes answering X's worried questions, he agreed to go back onto the gym floor and continue the workout.

That was the last 30 minutes I trained him. After the session he said that he wasn't sure of his schedule the following week and asked me to call over the weekend.

I called 3 times, left two messages, and sent an email--no response.

Two weeks later my manager told me that X had asked for the unused portion of his package to be refunded. He was officially a lost personal training client.

4 to 5 months later I saw X in the gym working out following what appeared to be a program; he looked the exact same and the weight he was lifting was lighter than the introductory weight I had him doing during out sessions.

We spoke and he told me that again he was sore and again he saw his osteopath after the workout who told him he should "take it easy". X found a new trainer down the street who assured him that the training would be different--from what I gathered, the guy pretty much called me an idiot for hurting X and working him too hard.

...We had done 2 sets of 8 reps of a goblet squat with a 25lbs DB...

I Learned 3 Lessons From Training X

1. Complaining is different than worrying. Clients complain, that's fine. Worrying is not OK though, it means that they don't understand or that they don't trust you. Learn the difference before it costs you your paycheck.

2. Always book at least two sessions in the future. This is a lesson that helped me a lot in the future. Before a client takes a weekend or week off for a break, book the next two sessions. After the Christmas break, for example, this allows you to get right back into training to avoid spending the first week frantically trying to book in clients.

3. Ask the right questions. When X described his relationship with his osteo and told me of the multiple diagnosis to which I found no evidence myself, it should have immediately been a red flag. Before training X, I should have called the osteo and, to be honest, I probably would have never taken him on as a client.

The signs were there. I listened to what X said but didn't pay attention--he seemed like the ideal client and might have been if I had handled it properly. The best trainers don't just listen, they ask the right questions and think critically about all clues and unfortunately this time, that was not me.