One of the most rewarding things as a personal trainer is seeing a client follow your program as planned and then achieve the results they really wanted. But what happens when the client simply doesn’t do what we tell them, no matter how much poking, prodding, and motivation we offer?

Sure, illness, injury, or a work commitment can slow results down, but getting to the root of the problem is tricky. Some clients may very well be stubborn or have their own thoughts about what they should be doing, too, but even so, it's your job as their trainer to make sure you and your client are on the same page. 

Is the client stubborn or is it bad coaching?

Whether your client refuses to follow your plan, is constantly late to sessions, or simply ignores all of your advice and still complains, you can't control your client; but you can control how you respond to and communicate with your client. What's more, part of the solution is to be ready to push back. This is a coaching skill many of us find difficult to put into practice because it can be tough to stomach the potential emotional fallout. However, it’s necessary to confront your clients because otherwise it’d be a waste of your time, as well as their time and money.

Here are three areas where you might have gone wrong and the most appropriate ways to confront your clients.

1. You didn’t clarify your client’s goals and commitment at the start.

Spend time with your clients, making clear exactly the goal they want and how much time and energy they have available to achieve it. You need to nail down their specific goals and mutually agree on strategies for overcoming potential obstacles from the outset.

The GROW model is taught to business coaches and translates well to personal training. You can use it as a structure for your initial consultation:

Goal: Establish as specifically as possible what the client wants to achieve, or it will be tough to measure progress. It could be a weight they want to achieve or a finish time for their first triathlon. Whatever the case, ask how it would feel or look when they achieve that goal. This helps lay a solid foundation for progress and shows the client that you are really listening and taking their intentions seriously.

Reality: These are the potential obstacles that could be in their way. This could be anything from working long hours, to making poor food choices on the hoof, to having an uncooperative partner. Ask your client what these obstacles are and help them think of strategies that prepare them for the inevitable bumps in the road. This makes the process a team effort and also encourages your clients to take responsibility for their role in the process.

It’s very important at this stage to not gloss over something that your client is ambiguous or evasive about. This needs gentle questioning to see if there is a deeper problem. If you’ve observed this behavior, you can ask a more probing question like:

“You seem to be uncomfortable when you talk about your husband supporting your need to eat healthier meals. Is there something in particular it would be helpful for us to discuss?”

These types of questions let the client share a more personal issue that could significantly impact their progress.

Simply stating “Your husband should support your goals!” comes off as more judgmental and could alienate the client if she feels she has to defend her partner’s behavior. Open up a space for dialogue and let your clients offer their own solutions.


Options: Get the client to identify the first few steps they need to take and what exactly they are prepared to commit to. This is a key stage, and if the client is being evasive about what they are prepared to do, you need to challenge it now to avoid future backsliding. Ask questions like: 

What do you feel is in your way before you can start?
What do you need to do to feel prepared?

Wrap-up: The client commits to the first step and agrees when to take it. Encourage your client to record this in a diary. This is, after all, their first step toward accountability and they will be required to report on progress at a mutually agreed time.

Altogether GROW gives you a practical structure for establishing what your clients want and what they need to commit to.  If it seems too complicated, then remember that any coaching conversation pretty much boils down to the following three questions, according to Coaching Skillsauthor Jenny Rogers:

* What? (Identify the goal)
* So what? (What is their motivation to achieve the goal?)
* What next? (What action will they take?)

This structure is easy to use on the fly, even during a training session where the client needs some motivation or clarity on a problem.

2. You made your client a dependent.

It’s not bizarre for clients to depend too much on their trainer. This is like playing the parent to a reluctant child who needs to be constantly told what to do and resists the process.

You could have been making the training process too focused on one side and much less collaborative than it should ideally be. This can make the client disengaged and resentful, or alternatively, they may identify you as someone who always knows the answers and steps in to solve their problems.

You need to ditch the “I know best” attitude to move away from a parent-child relationship. Julie Starr emphasizes in her book, Brilliant Coaching, the importance of valuing the client’s ability to think for themselves and removing the trainer's own ego from the relationship.

There are several strategies you can use to step back and make the training process more mutual:

* Suspend any tendency to judge. Ask the client how they feel and what is working for them without giving your opinion, no matter how informed.

* Make it clear that you are really listening to them. Make the client your focus during your discussion and avoid body language that looks as if you are distracted, such as fiddling with notes or your clothing. Say things like, "Go on..." or "Tell me more."

* Ask the questions that help them move forward. For example, ask when they next intend to train on their own, or what will be the first three steps they take to improve their nutritional profile? Essentially, how will these actions benefit them? This outcome-based thinking can empower your client.

* Resist the temptation to step in with an answer. Don't “rescue” the client. Give them time to think for themselves and offer a solution to their own problem.

As Rogers sums it up,

“Knowing when to press and when to hold back is a matter of the finest and most split-second judgement.”

Your intervention could actually be holding your client back and keeping them in a dependent role.

3. You are colluding with your client.

I usually start a session by asking my client how the week has gone since I last saw them. Getting an evasive answer that needs probing or an outright admission that the client completely fell off requires challenging them on their behavior and finding out what caused it.  


“Most coaching will involve some kind of confrontation from time to time. If you never confront clients, then you need to ask if you are colluding,” says Rogers.

Do not establish a pattern where the client admits to non-compliance and you shrug it off to avoid confrontation. Dodging conflict like this will lead to a very upset individual when you finally lose patience and call him or her out. If you are an employee at a gym, you would not expect to wait until your annual appraisal to suddenly hear that you are not performing as required. Manage your client in the same way: make feedback timely and deal with problems as soon as they arise.   

Get used to challenging your clients tactfully from the start, using coaching questions that get to the heart of the issue:

* What do they feel got in their way this time?
* How do they feel about what happened?
* What do they feel able to change?
* What would be their first step to make sure the problem doesn’t recur?
* When would they take that step?

Challenging in a way that helps the client solve their own problem establishes a healthier pattern of client accountability and avoids the previously mentioned parent-child dynamic.

One word of caution here: try to avoid starting a question with why. This can sound accusatory and put the client on the defensive, so stick to what, when, and how to prompt them to reflect.  

Inevitably, challenging a client sometimes leads to tears or a defensive attitude, which can make for an uncomfortable hour of training. However, while the initial reaction to a challenge can be unpleasant, I often receive an email within 24 hours explaining that my coaching was helpful and encouraged the client to buck up and get back on track. As Starr reminds us,

“Coaching is not by definition ‘nice’ or ‘soft’ - it can actually be very challenging.”

It is a very effective influencing tool when used tactfully and in a timely way with your clients, and offers many ways which to help achieve client adherence to your expert programming.

Photo Credit: Featured image by Flickr, Image 1 by Flickr and Image 2 by Wikimedia