Rebecca came to me with two problems:
She’d been told that, because of ankle problems, she couldn’t squat with anything heavier than a Kleenex box.
And according to a former trainer, she couldn’t lose weight because of inflammation and malfunctioning hormones. Her proof? She’d eliminated a long list of foods, so she must be eating in a calorie deficit. Clearly, she was doing her best and none of this was her fault.
I’ll tell you how we addressed these problems in a moment. But first I want to talk about the bigger problem Rebecca represents.
I started training clients in 2014, at the peak of CrossFit mania. Because I specialize in strength training for women, including powerlifters, I became a magnet for clients who believed a workout was a waste of time if they didn’t turn their gastrointestinal systems inside-out. That’s obviously a bad idea, and it was only a matter of time before even the most heavily tattooed zealots conceded the point.
But the backlash has led to what I now see more and more: clients who expect me to offer excuses for their problems, rather than give them solutions. I get why it can be tempting for a trainer to tell clients what they want to hear. The problem is that they’ll probably believe it.
I once had a client suggest that all personal trainers should take a course in psychology because “sometimes just talking to somebody helps a lot.” My response: There are people who do that. They’re called therapists.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done my fair share of “talking” with clients about all the reasons in the world why they can’t lose weight. And I’m a big fan of motivational interviewing. But bottom line, clients come to us not to talk about results, but to achieve them.
That said, there’s an art to calling clients on their own bullsh*t. I think of it as a dance. Sometimes you take the lead. Other times you follow theirs. Sometimes you take a step back, other times you spin around for a bit, and then there are moments when you have to jump as high as you can and land in a split.
The choreography involves four key moves.
1. Manage expectations up front
People are bombarded with promises of fast results and quick fixes. So it’s important to let your client know early on that’s not actually how this works.
Asking her how much weight she wants to lose is good. But you need to take it a step further by asking what timeline she has in mind.
Here’s what I say at every one of my assessments:
“I have to be honest with you. If you want to lose 20 pounds, it will take a lot of work. You will do things that are uncomfortable, and you will have to say no to foods you’re used to. Not all of them, but some. And it will take you anywhere from five to eight months to reach your goal. Are you sure you want to do this?”
Asking this serves two purposes:
- It tells me if the client is ready to change. If she is, then a little discomfort and a longer-than-anticipated timeline won’t faze her. But if she isn’t, she’ll offer a vague answer with lots of “buts.” Always watch out for those “buts.”
- It gives me an anchor to come back to in the future, when she tries to push the excuse button. (More on that later.)
If you don’t set the expectations early, it will be much harder to get your client on board with your training, no matter how good it is.
2. Ask provocative questions
I’m not suggesting you talk politics. I mean questions that will make your client think.
Let’s get back to Rebecca. As you recall, she blamed hormones for her inability to lose weight.
Rather than lecturing her on how hormones work and why that was so unlikely, I asked a simple and logical question:
“How do you know you eat in a calorie deficit?”
She didn’t know, of course. She just assumed she was. So she agreed to try an experiment and start tracking what she ate.
Six months later she was down 35 pounds.
Sure, you could just give your client the answers. But it’s better to ask the kind of questions that help your client find those answers on her own.
READ ALSO: Five Easy Questions to Land a New Client
3. Bring your client back to her why
I once had a client come to me because she wanted to bench press the big plates—135 pounds. As always, I set the expectations up front, and I could see she was ready to put in the work.
The first month was great. She followed the program to a T and made amazing progress. But as time went on she started skipping exercises she “didn’t like.”
Now, I usually don’t push clients to do things they don’t want to do. I’ll regress a movement if a client feels she isn’t ready for it, or work on something different for a while. (Like I said, it’s a dance.)
But this client wasn’t just refusing to do a few exercises. She wanted to skip half the workout.
At our next session, I took 15 minutes to have a little chat with her. “When I first met you, you told me you wanted to bench 135,” I said. “Do you still want to reach this goal?”
She said yes, as I figured she would. That’s how most clients respond when you remind them of their original goal.
Three months later, she benched 135 pounds at her first powerlifting meet.
As time passes, life interferes and motivation fades. But by bringing your client back to her why, reminding her of the reason she started training in the first place, you add more wood to the fire.
4. Tell your client to cut the crap
I was raised to take full responsibility for my actions.
My mom wouldn’t hear a word about who started the fight, or who took a swim in the giant puddle first, or who tempted whom to try smoking.
Her point was, I could’ve made a different choice. But I didn’t. And if I ended up grounded for a month, it was nobody’s fault but mine.
You can imagine how tough it is for someone with my upbringing to resist telling every client, “Cut the crap, it’s you!”
But even if it’s not your first instinct, there are times when it’s exactly what a client needs to hear.
I’ve told clients straight-up they’ll never lose weight until they take responsibility for their actions. I’ll say, “The reason you gave in to McDonald’s isn’t because you didn’t have time to make breakfast. It’s because you failed to prepare your breakfast the night before.” Sometimes it’s your priorities, not your busy life, that’s the problem.
I’ve had clients stop eating at McDonald’s right then and there and lose 20 pounds. And I’ve had clients quit working with me, only to come back later and say, “Hey, you were right.”
The strategy doesn’t always work, but when it does, the transformations are mind-blowing.
Every client is different. Only you can determine when it’s time to break out a particular dance move. Sometimes you’ll make a wrong call, and that’s okay. You can course-correct later. But if you hop aboard your client’s excuse train, and there’s no turning back.