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August 2012

What the Pros Know: How to Keep Your Clients Coming Back for More

By Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.

Do you find yourself struggling to keep your clients motivated to continue their programs? This pragmatic, levelheaded and real-world approach will help you inspire even the most adherence-resistant clients.

When trainers get together, one topic that’s sure to be discussed is the frustration that comes from dealing with highly resistant, demotivated clients. Countless theories exist to help explain what does—and doesn’t—motivate people to adhere to well-designed exercise programs. “Research” overwhelms journals and the Internet in attempting to further the knowledge base in the area of motivation. And yet, the problem persists.

The determination, drive and desire that clients have as they approach exercise are often intermixed with perceived obstacles, barriers, challenges and setbacks. Clients start out ready, willing and able to change their lifestyles, but for some individuals, that mindset quickly melts into self-doubt, blurred vision, eroded goals and a sense of failure. 

ACE-certified Fitness Professionals have learned about extrinsic and intrinsic goals, self-efficacy, the theory of reasoned action and planned behavior, self-determination theory and stimulus-response theory, as well as various integrative approaches including the transtheoretical model, decisional balance, social ecological models, motivational interviewing and more. Still, when faced with a client about to give up, stop training, “take time off” and avoid the gym, these theoretical models leave too many trainers looking for someone else to train.  

There is, however, another approach worth trying. The ACT model is a pragmatic, levelheaded and real-world toolkit grounded in the aforementioned theories that can help trainers build enviable reputations as being successful with even the most adherence-resistant clients. 

The ACT model is built on the following steps:

1. Accurate Assessment

2. Create a viable response/Collaborate in Connecting 

3. Teach and Train

Accurate Assessment

Through the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) Model, you understand the value of precise, correct and exacting assessment. In fact, one of the first areas that behavioral science emphasized in the applied sports field was assessment. And, from a relationship-building perspective, more and more health club owners and managers are beginning to understand the value of an initial in-depth and accurate assessment.  

Yet many clients, especially those whose motivation fades, report that, while they may have been given an initial evaluation, it was performed quickly and without much explanation. Trainers who leave clients wondering about their initial assessments have sown the seeds of motivational issues later in the training relationship. The ACE IFT Model presents a complete paradigm for assessment and those trainers who actually use it to the fullest as one part of their initial assessments, differentiate themselves as unique connectors with clients—the kind of connection that lasts through the troughs of client uncertainty about continuing their training.

Here is some straightforward advice in introducing a balanced initial assessment: Explain the logic for why assessment is so important at the start of their fitness training. Some reasons may include:

  • providing the client and trainer, as a collaborative team, with baseline fitness data
  • helping the trainer decide what exercises and level of exertion are uniquely appropriate for the client
  • uncovering information to promote reflection and self-aware understanding, which are important to continuing an exercise and health commitment
  • identifying fitness and health areas the client may not have been aware of that would benefit from attention

Telling the client, in advance, what the assessment involves is another important demonstration of respect and relationship building. Asking the client what he or she thinks about the depth of the assessment develops and enhances rapport; assessments should never be presented in ways that evoke resistance.  

Discuss the Results of Your Assessment

Present the client with the accumulated picture of his or her fitness, health, lifestyle habits, strengths and stage of readiness to change in an organized, professional, graphic and detailed way. Too often, trainers perform a hurried assessment and finish with, “O.K., I see where we need to get started so let’s begin,” mistakenly believing that clients value jumping right in. While this approach might appeal to some clients, most will value a more thoughtful examination of their overall state of being.  

An accurate and complete assessment also provides you with a more formalized understanding of your client, and that translates into the ability to see the client with an open mind—and perhaps identify early in the relationship unspoken areas that might develop into client-created barriers. Trainers who can challenge their own internal self-talk and assumptions about the client with actual collected data are better able to avoid being surprised later. Developing a data-based profile of each client makes it easier to maintain a strengths-based focus of that individual, which can be incredibly useful for dealing with motivational issues that might arise. Finally, reviewing the conclusions of your assessment helps to clarify the client’s real priorities, self-efficacy and readiness to change. 

Examine the Client’s Overall Well-being

Instead of simply performing a fitness test, examine your client’s overall well-being. While a client may become demotivated to exercise, his or her concern for personal well-being is unlikely to diminish. That’s why it is important to identify areas of your client’s successes, positive and negative energy, cognitive and emotional issues, personality and learning styles and overall life satisfactions. With this information, you can help your client see his or her results in a positive light, while also uncovering and dealing with unspoken negativity. 

This is done through consistently discussing the client in positive, empathic ways, using active-listening methods, avoiding “spin” about the findings and following up with a phone call or e-mail to see what (not “if”) questions the client may have about the information culled from his or her assessment. 

In addition to the ACE IFT Model paradigm, consider assessing additional areas such as stress, sleep habits and patterns, life balance, nutrition and overall life satisfaction—all of which have the potential to develop into full-blown obstacles to continuing an exercise program.

Create a Viable Response/Collaborate in Connecting  

Once the initial assessment has been completed and reviewed, developing and presenting the client’s training program provides additional opportunities to prevent demotivation over the long-term.  

Undoubtedly, your clients look to you to be the expert. However, savvy trainers understand that their role, if it is to be helpful over the longer run, is grounded in helping clients discover potentialities and continuing a positive envisioning process. It is not about how many reps the client could NOT do.  

For this reason, it is crucial to present your training programs as a collaborator, not as the know-it-all expert. Avoid the “automatic pilot” program; instead, respect the client’s pacing, use of language and learning style.  

The exercise and lifestyle programs you collaboratively develop with your clients (respecting each client’s personality style) should include a set of SMARTEN UP goals that the client can fully commit to, easily visualize and own. 

While you are likely familiar with SMART goals, SMARTEN UP goals include four additional points that are valuable in building protection for motivational issues:

Developing goals that build on enthusiasm is much more effective than the “no pain, no gain” approach to exercise that lead many individuals to abandon their training programs. When goals address the natural instincts of the client (instead of what the client “should” aspire to), the goals are likely to be more inspirational and meaningful to that individual. A natural goal is one that is completely in line with, and fundamental to, whom the client is. And, unless the client understands the goals so well that he or she can easily explain them to others, the goals most likely belong to the trainer rather than the client. 

Consider using visualization exercises to help your clients “see” success. Another useful tool is to ask your clients to write present-tense descriptions of how they see themselves (and their results) in one month and in three months. Revisiting these descriptions as training progresses often provides a positive, confidence-building experience.

In your conversations with other trainers, pay particular attention to those who are successful in defanging their clients’ motivational issues before they crop up. It’s not that their clients don’t experience motivational hurdles; rather, it’s more likely that these trainers identify and flatten those client-created bumps in the road along the way. The OARS method is one approach to identifying these motivational hurdles:   

Open-ended Questions

Avoid asking questions that solicit “yes or no” type answers. Instead, deliberately try to ascertain your client’s thoughts and feelings and always be sure to talk less than your clients do. For example, you might ask a client, “So, what were you thinking that led you to feel like cancelling the session yesterday?” 

Affirm the Client

Look for opportunities to build your client’s self-efficacy by validating and empathizing with his or her struggles and successes. For example, “I understand that you might feel a bit discouraged and think of throwing in the towel since you had such a difficult time staying with it today. While that would be a common reaction, fortunately it’s just a passing thought.”

Reflective Listening

Practice mirroring back what clients say and mean as they work out. Validate their efforts, particularly when they indicate that they are really focused. For example, “I get that you are saying that you really wanted to eat that dessert last night and are proud of yourself for avoiding it.” 


Another effective technique is to paraphrase and restate what your client is saying to you. For example,  “So, in summary, it sounds like you are saying you wish it weren’t this difficult, that you sometimes think it really should be easier and you think it’s pretty awful that it’s so unfair.” 

Teach and Train

While many trainers begin sessions with dynamic stretching, and then move into appropriate forms of exercise routines, approaching each session differently is a far more effective approach. For many clients, it might be more effective to begin the session with a brief visualization to “see” the success of the session in advance, to ask how the client is doing and to avoid the all-too-typical, “Great, let’s get started” greeting. Instead, trying using reflective listening and discuss how the client feels about his or her exercises and training sessions, focus on positive gains, build self-efficacy, and continuously reestablish the connection and trust necessary to defuse motivational issues later. 

Your personal-training style, be it nurturing, entertaining, drill sergeant or teacher, needs to continuously match the needs of the client. Not doing so provides ammunition for later relationship collapse.

Relapse is a term that describes the experience of the client failing to resume training. While all clients may experience “lapses,” or temporary setbacks in enthusiasm and adherence, when those periodic erosions are met with a high-risk situation that challenges the individual’s ability to maintain his or her program, it is not unlikely that he or she will "relapse" to an unhealthy or sedentary lifestyle. 

This is where your behavior in the three stages will be tested. Only by understanding that training is more about role-modeling than service and by paying full attention and listening to what is not being said, using open-ended communication tools, and authentically empathizing with your client’s thoughts and feelings throughout training, will you be able to accurately identify—and correct—a client’s erroneous belief that one slip means he or she will never be successful. 

A client’s negative thinking and consequent negative emotional response are too often the fuel to propel increased likelihood of relapse. When you are fully engaged with the client throughout the process, you are far more likely to be able to help the client challenge, question and debate his or her inaccurate thinking and replace it with something more accurate, positive and healthy.

When you help a client face a seemingly high-risk situation with a positive coping response, you are fostering increased self-efficacy and a decreased likelihood of relapse. 

Combating Negative Self-talk

Try using the following questions to help address your client’s negative self-talk: 

  • Is it true? (What’s the grain of untruth?)
  • Is this thought empowering or disempowering you? (What thought would be more empowering?)
  • How can you leverage this experience to become even better? (What can you do to rework this to catapult you forward?)
  • What’s one thing you could stop doing today that would have the most positive impact in your life? (What could you start doing that would have a more positive impact on your life?)
  • What is it you are not facing? (What would wake you up if you face it?)

For example, you might ask the client, “What evidence do you have that you are a failure because you feel like giving up?” See the sidebar, “Combating Negative Self-talk,” for more questions that can help identify and manage this damaging behavior.

This form of cognitive restructuring can help your clients recognize that a lapse is not catastrophic, but is, in fact, normal and inevitable. You can help transform your client’s all-or-nothing thinking into something that is more resilient and flexible by listening for the thought patterns that lead to extreme and inaccurate beliefs about the client, how the client thinks he or she “should” be treated, and how his or her life “should” be. For example,

  • I must do well and it’s terrible if I don’t.
  • You must treat me well and it’s awful when you don’t.
  • Life must be fair and it’s the end of the world when it’s not.

Using the questions and methods described here and in the sidebar will enable you to help your clients correct their negative thought patterns. For example,

  • I want to do well, but I don’t have to do. So, while it’s bad if I don’t do well, it’s not terrible.
  • I want you to treat me well, but unfortunately you don’t have to. So, when you don’t treat me well it’s really unfortunate but not awful.
  • I very much want life to be fair, but unfortunately it doesn’t have to be the way I want it to be. So, while it’s bad that life is unfair, it’s not the end of the world.


Learning to seamlessly apply the ACT model and the techniques described here takes deliberate and conscious practice, but the results that can be achieved with clients are well worth the effort. Undoubtedly, effectively training clients is both an art and a science. It is your practical application of the science of personal training—your art—that will ultimately determine your success in working with resistant clients.

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania after completing his M.S. degree in clinical psychology at Hahnemnann Medical College, where he wrote his thesis on the psychological aspects of obesity. He coaches world-class athletes and fitness enthusiasts for performance enhancement. He is Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for ACE, on the faculty of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, a national Community Ambassador for Experience Life magazine’s health initiative, appears weekly on San Diego’s CW channel 6, is a consultant to Les Mills International, writes for IHRSA, is a member of the Sports Medicine Team at the Sporting Club of San Diego and the La Jolla Sports Club specializing in fitness psychology, and writes the “San Diego Fitness Psychology” column for He is also a writer and consultant to the Total Gym company. Dr. Mantell has written two best-selling books and appears regularly on radio and TV.

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