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How to Manage a Difficult Client

How to Manage a Difficult Client | Angel Chelik | Expert Articles | 2/20/2017

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You became a personal trainer to help others lead a healthier life. On the surface, one might say that you work primarily with the physical side of that transformation. But in reality, you know that coaching clients through behavior change and mindset training is where you spend a large portion of your time and energy.

So even though we train the physical body, our roles as trainers are expanding. Luckily, organizations such as ACE recognize this and dedicate several chapters of their manuals to the psychology behind weight loss, motivation and adherence. However, reading it is one thing, living it is another. We work with real people who have their own unique personalities. Throw in work and personal life stressors and you can have one challenging client on your hands.

Here are three types of challenging clients you’re likely to encounter in your career:

Clients who complain about the actual exercises.

“This is too hard.” “Can I just do 10 reps instead of 15?”  “This weight is too heavy.”  You’ve heard all of these. You can tackle this situation in two ways.

Lifetime Fitness personal Trainer and Group Exercise Instructor Sarah Zook likes to offer a little tough love and intentionally ignores these types of complaints. “If they are complaining because they get a response, they will continue to complain,” says Zook. “I don’t like to entertain it.” This is not to say that if they are experiencing pain, you should ignore it. Knowing your clients’ personalities and communicating with them about the difference between burning muscles and painful tension at a joint is vitally important.

You can also go the opposite route by responding immediately. In these challenging moments, June Kahn, owner of Center Your Body Pilates, encourages her clients by using verbal and visual cues. “If I can provide cues that directly relate to their breathing, body alignment and mindset, that is sometimes enough of a distraction for them,” explains Kahn. “And of course I follow it up with positive feedback about how they were able to accomplish it with focus and intention.”

In addition, consider explaining the purpose of the exercise. A client might be frustrated with an exercise because she doesn’t understand why she should be performing it. From the beginning, make sure your client knows the benefits of each exercise and how it fits into her overall training program and goals.

Depending on the client, and level of frustration, June also feels it is sometimes necessary to pull back and not push the client over the edge. It’s not uncommon for her to change an exercise to something that she knows the client can complete, so he or she can feel a sense of accomplishment. Giving clients the chance to perform something they’re good at can greatly improve the mood and attitude in the session.

Clients who lose motivation quickly.

This can be disguised as last-minute cancellations, not following though with nutritional changes or failure to take the necessary steps for behavior change. Working with this type of client may require a trial-and-error approach to determine what works. In the first few sessions with a client, reserve time to discuss habits, support systems, past successes and failures to help you determine the best path.

Steven Trotter, assistant director of Fitness Programs at Virginia Tech, utilizes behavior contracts with his clients. “I lay out the expectations of what I will do, and then we work together to determine what is reasonable and attainable for them,” says Trotter. “Checking in on clients during the week and addressing any concerns while training can keep clients honest. If something isn’t working, we change it.”

It’s important to remember that you only spend two to three hours a week with your clients. If you take the time to help create new behavior patterns for them during the rest of the week, they will be more likely to see and feel the benefits.

For example, a client recently told me how frustrated she was with her eating habits at work. She was walking past the candy bowl up to 10 times a day and eating candy every time. I asked her if there was another way to get to the other side of the building. Her response: “Well, yes, but it’s really out of the way.” That’s exactly what I wanted to hear! That’s a win/win in my mind.  She is now taking the longer route (and it was only 90 seconds), avoids the candy and she’s walking an extra 900 steps a day.

Remember that little behavior changes lead to big feelings of success.

Clients who are pessimistic about life in general.

Training is a rewarding job—you feel good when your clients feel good. However, you can’t force clients to be happy—they must want that for themselves.  If the mindset drills and gratitude journals aren’t working, and the chronic complaining is wearing you down, it needs to be addressed. It might be a wake-up call to your client that can actually promote change. Or, he or she might move on to another trainer.

The saying “Don’t take it personally” doesn’t apply here. Take it personally. Your time is valuable. One of the perks of being in this field is that you get to create your destiny. If you aren’t serving a client in a way that makes you feel good, move on.  I once heard Todd Durkin, renowned trainer and owner of Fitness Quest 10, say, “Surround yourself with energy givers, not energy suckers.”

One final tip: Talk to your colleagues and see how they handle these types of clients. Hopefully you can share these strategies and brainstorm new ones that will keep our population healthy and happy.