You enter your home, look up, and see it: a misshapen yellow oval with a bullseye of blistered paint. Great. A water stain. Could be a leak in the roof. Or a busted pipe. You stare into the paint bubble. It stares back.
Then again, is it really such a big deal? There’s no drip, after all, and the spot’s not that big. Maybe it won’t get worse. Yeah, you tell yourself, let’s go with that.
A month later that bullseye is no longer bubbled paint. It’s a hole. In your ceiling. What was once the specter of water is now made real by the flood in your living room. So much for those lovely wood floors.
That water stain happens to all personal trainers. (No, not literally. Ever heard of a metaphor?) You notice it during your client’s reassessments. You tally the numbers — weight, body fat, mobility — and the results aren’t there. You try to convince yourself, and the client, that these things take time.
“The body has to adapt to exercise.”
“Weight loss isn’t linear.”
“Results don’t happen overnight.”
But deep down you’re thinking, “Crap, that’s not good.” Whether you’re a veteran trainer or a beginner, you’re not alone. This is never an easy situation. But learning to handle it well can be the difference between getting results for your client, or not.
That’s why I created this five-step plan. In nearly 10 years as a trainer, I’ve found these strategies to be the most effective for taking a client from a down month (or two or three down months) to positive progress.
But before we get into it, I’m going to ask you to make a commitment — a promise to take immediate action the moment you spot that stain. The longer you wait, the more damage can be done, until eventually you need a new living room. (Or, in this case, a new client.)
That means you can’t be afraid to highlight poor results. Luckily, with the approach outlined here, you can do so from a place of guidance, and establish a plan that doesn’t just patch the leak but fixes it for good.
Step 1: Ask Open-Ended Questions
Start by saying something like this: “You haven’t been getting the results you want, so let’s figure out why.” Then ask your client some open-ended questions to evaluate the past month.
I use questions from the PTA Global “Kaizen-6” tool, along with a few of my own:
* What results have you noticed?
* On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with the results?
* What could be better?
* What have been your biggest obstacles in the past month?
* How do you feel your nutrition/exercise/recovery has been in the past month?
* What goal is most important for you to accomplish over the next month?
* What guidance or help do you need from me over the next month?
Once a month (or every four sessions, depending how often you train together), revisit these questions, asking them again in the same way, and recording the answers.
The longer you do this, the more you can refine your approach. Eventually, you may not need to run through the full gamut of questions, narrowing your focus to build on what you’ve learned. But try to stick with this script for at least three months so you collect an adequate data sample.
Encourage your client to give honest answers, even if it’s not what you want to hear.
Search for patterns. Typically, the problem is rooted in any of four main culprits:
- Nutrition (water, food quality, hunger control)
- Exercise (both during and outside training sessions)
- Recovery (sleep, overtraining)
- Life (stress, work, family obligations, support system)
Does your client keep coming back to nutrition? (“After a long day, I usually end up getting takeout”; “I’m keeping up with workouts, but I’m not cooking much.”) If so, focus there.
READ ALSO: “Five Ways to Help Your Clients Lose Weight”
If nutrition is on point and the client complains of stress and low energy, look at life factors.
Now, don’t just run down the questions, ticking each one off as you go — that’s about as useful as handing your client a questionnaire and a pen. Instead, listen carefully and pose follow-ups when appropriate.
Help your client open up by keeping three points in mind:
- Follow up with questions, not statements: Tell a client their diet sucks and it won’t stick. But ask leading questions, and you’re not telling them anything — you’re helping them figure it out on their own. If Fred is struggling with diet, you might follow up with, “What do you feel you’ve done well with your nutrition, and what could you improve?” or “Which foods make you feel the best and worst after eating?” You know you’re getting this right if Fred is talking more than you.
- Lead with numbers: Numbers don’t lie — but they don’t tell the whole story either. Stick to what you know based on the numbers, and don’t make assumptions. Always ask. Just be sure to couch your questions in the data: “Mary, according to the diet log, you’ve had fast food eight times this week. Why do you think that is?” By doing that, you make the conversation as objective and emotionless as possible. Because numbers don’t judge either.
- Take responsibility: If Jackie isn’t keeping up on her food journal, consider: Have you made it clear to her why tracking food intake is useful? Have you set clear expectations? Have you laid out all the available tools (digital vs. journal vs. pictures) and helped find the best one for her? Remind Jackie that it’s your job to make the game plan work for her (because it is), and ask what you can do to help.
As you continue through this process, it’s important to celebrate small wins — an improvement in form, a streak of completed workouts, an increase in your client’s bench. It will aid motivation, even while you hunt down the problem.
READ ALSO: “The Number-One Skill Your Clients Need to Succeed”
Step 2: Find the Why
Okay, so you’ve identified the culprit(s). Good work! But don’t stop there. What comes next is crucial, and it’s where most trainers get tripped up.
That’s because we tend to underestimate how many questions it takes to get to the root cause of a problem.
Maybe you’ve figured out that your client isn’t getting enough sleep. But that’s a bit like figuring out there’s a hole in your ceiling. Yes, it’s a cause of the problem, but it’s not the root cause.
You can’t prescribe extra z’s and assume it’ll work. That’s patching the ceiling. You need to find the source of the leak.
Engineers and business managers use a technique called the 5 Whys, designed to explore the origins of a problem. The idea is to drill down until you get to the root cause. To do this, you may have to ask “why” as many as five times.
“I sleep five hours.” Why?
“I go to bed late.” Why?
“I catch up on email at night and lose track of time.”
The goal is to interrogate every problem until you’ve found the root of it. From there, you can come up with strategies to address it — setting a timer, or checking emails in the morning instead of at night.
It could be a matter of challenging his comfort zone: He doesn’t eat vegetables because he grew up on pizza rolls. (Give him your recipe for cauliflower pizza.) And sometimes the fix is even simpler: The client doesn’t drink water because she doesn’t have a water bottle. (I’ll let you figure that one out.)
The deeper you dig, the more likely you are to help a client discover how his or her life influences a behavior, and the less likely you are to fall back on simply telling someone to do something.
Step 3: Identify the Change with the Biggest Impact
You or your client may have the impulse to fix everything all at once. But that’s not realistic.
When it comes to establishing a healthy routine, research shows that the key to success is to implement one change at a time. And even then, a habit can take 10 weeks to form. Take on too much too fast, and you’ll flame out. But focus on just one thing, and it’s more likely to become a habit.
So which change do you start with? Let’s return to that roof. Imagine you have three leaks, all different sizes. If each one takes the same effort to fix, where do you start? With the biggest one, of course! If water is gushing through one hole and slowly dripping through another, a clear hierarchy emerges.
But how do you know which change will have the biggest impact on your client’s results? That’s where your expertise comes in.
Let’s say I have a client — call him Pete — who’s sleeping five hours a night, eating an extra dessert a week, and regularly blowing off a cardio session. Assuming Pete wants to lose weight, the easy targets are the dessert and the missed cardio. Those late-night sweets are full of empty calories, and skipping cardio means you’re not burning as many calories as you could.
Still, the benefits you’d get from saving (or burning) a few hundred calories a week pale in comparison to the widespread benefits of proper sleep. Hormone balance, recovery, appetite regulation, stress reduction, energy boost — with that kind of wind at his back, Pete may start seeing some real results. He may even find it easier to resist dessert or tackle cardio. So given these choices, I’d focus on sleep.
Remember to engage your client in this process. Walk him through your logic, and ask for his input so he can continue to own it.
READ ALSO: “The Fitness Pro’s Guide to Better Sleep”
Step 4: Set a Specific Plan
Now that you’ve identified the change your client needs to make, it’s time to come up with a plan to implement it. Your plan needs three things:
- A clear goal
- Regular check-ins
Pete’s plan might look something like this:
- Goal: Sleep at least seven hours a night, six nights a week.
- Repetition: Every morning, he’ll mark his calendar with a smiley face or a frown, depending on the duration and quality of sleep.
- Check-in: He’ll send you the results each week, and you’ll follow up at the next session.
By the way, I’m a huge fan of putting the client in charge of check-ins. My favorite technique is the calendar example above. A shared Google calendar can work, but the client can also set an alarm on his phone, create calendar invites, or send emails or texts. The point is for the client to reach out to you, rather than the other way around. It creates more ownership on the client’s part, and saves you a ton of time.
Step 5: Keep Your Client Pumped
Change is hard. You’ve lived one way for years, and suddenly you’re crushing yourself with workouts, replacing ice cream with broccoli, and trying not to get sucked into a vortex of hopelessness and self-doubt. Ugh.
Seeing results is what gets most clients through this. So imagine how tough it is when those results don’t arrive. That’s when your client needs you most.
Remind her of the reasons she gave you when you started, of why she wanted to change in the first place. Remind her of the confidence she wanted to build, or the quality of life she sought to achieve, or the example she hoped to set for her kids.
And highlight all the progress she’s made so far, all the positive changes in strength, endurance, or form. Show her how far she’s come, and how much farther she can go.
Take it month by month. Encourage him to focus on the plan for the next 30 days. Then high-five him at the next reassessment, motivate him again, and ask for 30 more.
Great things happen when you keep your client on the right track.