Years ago, I had this client. Let’s call her Sara.
As I do with all my clients, and you do with yours, I used my time and energy to develop a plan to help her get results.
Then one day she told me I was wrong. Actually, she told me her husband said I was wrong. My nutrition advice was off base, he’d told her. And he would know. He’d been a bodybuilder once. Thirty years ago.
Inside my head, a little voice was saying, “Um, pardon me?” Out loud, I stammered something about nutrition research having come a long way since then. “Well, okay,” she said. But I could tell she wasn’t convinced.
Over the following weeks, she ignored much of my advice as her husband continued to pick it apart. And guess who she blamed when she didn’t get results. No, not him.
I finally spoke up. “If we’re going to keep training together,” I told her, “you absolutely cannot listen to your husband.”
I explained that ethically, I couldn’t keep taking her money if she was going to disregard my advice. What’s more, her lack of results reflected poorly on me.
I still remember her bewildered look. But after a few moments of paralyzed silence, she agreed. She started following my advice and lost 10 pounds in four weeks.
I wish I could say this was a one-off, but it wasn’t. Over the years — especially early in my career — I’ve dealt with skepticism from both male and female clients.
Fact is, while women have made great strides in the fitness industry, in many ways it’s still a man’s world. And many women trainers feel we must work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.
I see this in gyms all the time: men “correcting” women’s form (the fitness version of mansplaining), or holding a captive audience while spouting “bro science.” Meanwhile, the women don’t project nearly that level of confidence, even though they should.
As a trainer for 10 years and founder of the Female Trainer Society, I help women grow their fitness businesses. That means finding ways to overcome this challenge, including the following seven steps.
1. Believe in Yourself
Thankfully I haven’t had to deal with this in a long time. Yes, I’m more experienced now. But I’m more confident too. As a result, my clients are more confident in me.
Confidence is key, and it’s something many of us struggle with. I’ve heard unqualified men deliver poor fitness advice with such gusto that it sounds credible. I’ve also heard well-qualified women hedge their good advice, welcoming skepticism.
If you sound like you’re doubting yourself, your clients won’t believe you.
And I get it. Negative thoughts happen. What’s helped me is realizing that those negative thoughts are just that — thoughts. Too often people identify with their thoughts and accept them as truth. But you are not your thoughts. In fact, you can change them.
Try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones (“I am the expert”), or just blow right past them. Swallow those “ums” and “uhs” and “maybes.” Speak boldly.
READ ALSO: “Five Ways to Deal with a Client Who Challenges You”
2. Act Fast
Looking back, I wish I had spoken up to Sara sooner. Instead, I let the problem slide for weeks, and when she failed to see results she blamed me.
She wasn’t wrong. As a trainer, I take 100 percent responsibility for my clients — if they don’t see results, it’s my fault, not theirs.
If you go to the dentist to have a cavity filled and a week later your tooth is in pain, are you to blame? Heck no! The dentist screwed up. That error is on them.
Back then, I didn’t understand this as clearly as I do now. I ignored red flags for too long and wasted both our time.
Speaking up isn’t easy, and despite your instinct, your brain will come up with a million excuses to keep your mouth shut. Entrepreneur Mel Robbins has suggested that if you don’t act on a goal within five seconds, your brain will kill it.
So don’t wait. Remember that speaking up is your responsibility. Your client may not like what she hears at first. But she’ll like it much less a month from now, when she finds out you allowed the problem to persist.
READ ALSO: “Your Client Stopped Getting Good Results. Now What?”
3. Speak from a Place of Care
Women can have a hard time being assertive. That’s partly because assertive women are too often seen as aggressive or hostile. Many of us wrestle with that. We don’t want to be seen as bossy, but we do want to be respected.
Luckily, I have a solution: Pretend your client is your grandmother. This is how I talk to all my clients. It helps me stay calm, patient, and polite.
If Grandma questions your advice, you don’t respond in anger. You calmly explain how and why it’s going to benefit her in terms she understands. You tell her you care about her and want her to achieve her goals.
This helps me strike an empathetic yet professional tone. It’s the difference between trying to get your way and trying to get results for your client. One turns people off; the other gets them to listen.
You might say something like,
“I’m asking you to do things differently from what you’ve done in the past. Let’s just try this for two weeks, and if it doesn’t work we can talk about how to change it.”
Remind your client that you want the best for her. Speak from a place of care and appreciation, and your client will respect that.
4. Mention the Money
No one wants to be ripped off. When you point out that your client is wasting money by ignoring your advice, you'll get her attention.
Acknowledge that while your advice may contradict what she’s tried in the past, those strategies haven’t worked. That’s why she hired you.
Say something like,
“You’re paying me for a service. You deserve results, and this is how you’re going to get them.”
Most clients will appreciate the honesty. You’re basically telling them you’re not interested in just taking their money. You want to help them see results.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Lose a Client
Maybe you fear you’ll upset your client and she’ll leave you. That rarely happens, in my experience. But even if it does, trust me, it’s for the best.
I once had a client who refused to follow her program and complained on social media that she wasn’t seeing results. I told her, “I don’t think you’re ready to make this change. I’m going to discontinue your contract. And when you’re ready, you can come back.”
I invest a lot of time and mental energy in my clients. When one of them isn’t cooperating, that’s wasted effort I could be spending on someone else.
Sure, you may take a hit of a couple hundred bucks. But don’t think of it as losing a client. Think of it as making space for a great new client, someone who’s worth the investment you make in her success.
READ ALSO: “Five Lessons from 10 Years of Personal Training”
6. Go Ahead and Brag
When Sara finally started following my advice and seeing results, you better believe I didn’t let that slide by unnoticed.
I like to keep it playful by saying something like, “I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.” Generally, people react with a laugh and “I know, I know.”
But it’s important to acknowledge accomplishments, and that’s something else women aren’t always great at doing for fear of appearing boastful.
Women are socialized to stay small, to not take up space. But if you look at the women who are dominating the market, they’re the ones who are taking up the space. They’re saying, “Move over! Let me in!” They’re standing up for themselves and not afraid to make waves.
So I say, don’t shy away from your accomplishments. Highlight them!
7. Help a Sister Out
To all the male trainers out there, if you see a female colleague being disrespected, here’s your script: Walk up and say, “Hey, she really knows her stuff. You should listen to her.”
This is why testimonials work. When real people speak up and show they trust you, it establishes credibility. It’s an easy way for you to help out a colleague, and a subtle move toward greater gender equality in fitness. That’s good for everyone.