You’ve been training a client for several months, but there have been few to no changes in her body or mindset. Her weight is hanging around the same 5 pounds lost and regained and her fitness had improved some, but has now plateaued. She tells you what she’s eating and it sounds okay. One problem you know is contributing to her lack of change is that she doesn’t seem motivated to exercise outside of your two sessions a week with her. What’s a trainer to do?

“Like anything in life, you can’t force someone to do something until they are ready to make the change,” says Jeff Thomas, Fitness and Nutrition Director of Cenergy. “If a client is only coming to training sessions because their family or significant other is forcing them, they probably won’t be as motivated as they should be. Jumping into a diet and fitness plan takes a ton of dedication and until someone is ready to put the work in, they won’t see the results they hope to achieve.” 

“We’re all hardwired to resist change. It’s in our DNA,” explains John McGrail, Ph.D., author of The Synthesis Effect

McGrail feels the best strategy to stave off self-sabotaging is to be preemptive. “Warn the client of the tendency [to self-sabotage], reinforce the concept of commitment and the process for change, and don’t expect instant end results.”

He also recommends celebrating the little steps. “Celebrate the victories along the way. If they’re losing a pound a week and it’s been three weeks, that’s 3 pounds! Also try instituting a daily regimen of visualizing the end result and feeling the delight of it. It can help them stay with the program.” 

Another tool McGrail uses is to have clients ask themselves a simple question. “Does this choice I’m about to make serve my growth, my well-being and the greater good? If a person answers honestly then they have instant guidance as to what to do. There’s no guarantee, of course, but it helps identify the causes if they do go off their path.” 

Let’s take a look at some common areas in which people tend to self-sabotage, as well as a few solutions you can institute in your own practice. 


Food is perhaps the most common area for self-sabotage because it is a necessity—everyone has to eat to live. Whether the excuse is, “If it’s there, I’ll eat it” or “I was stressed,” Steve Siebold, author of Fat Loser! Mental Toughness Training for Dieters, suggests comparing old ways of thinking to new ones. 

“I would explain that the level of thinking that made them fat won’t make them thin. Excuses exist at a low level of consciousness,” he explains, “and until they transcend that, they will always fall victim to its messaging.”  

Or try something a little more practical, suggests Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. “Have them keep a food and mood journal. Put three columns down the page. On the far left side write how you feel—for instance, ‘I feel so stressed from work.’ In the middle write what food you reached for or thought of reaching for—such as ‘I’m going to relax with some ice cream.’ In the third column write an alternative behavior—‘I could talk to my friend about my work stress.’”

“And instead of always telling the client what they shouldn’t eat, it’s better to educate them on what they should be eating and how much is ideal for losing weight,” adds Thomas. 

On the flip side, you probably also have clients who cut too many calories. Thomas recommends educating them about how the body works. “Clients that aren’t getting the amount of fuel they need because they are cutting out meals need to understand that the body cannot function properly without an adequate amount of calories each day. The body goes into ‘protection mode’ and begins to store the calories you take in and holds onto them until the body receives more. The end result is a slowed metabolism and weight loss is not achieved.” 


Alcohol can be a touchy subject with some people, because many don’t want to be told they can’t imbibe. Then, of course, there’s the topic of alcoholism. Remember, as a trainer, it is not your place to decide if a client has a problem with alcohol. It is, however, acceptable for you to educate your clients on alcohol’s effects on weight loss and health. 

“There are two main reasons why drinking alcohol will sabotage your progress that are continuously overlooked,” explains Thomas. “The first and most common one is not accounting for or miscalculating the amount of calories in each alcoholic beverage, which leads to consuming empty calories that do not give the body any nutritional value. Besides providing empty calories, alcohol is also dehydrating and deprives the body of any nutrients needed to repair your muscles.” 

There are, however, studies that show that moderate alcohol intake (two 4-ounce glasses of wine or two 1.5 ounce shots of liquor a day, for instance) can actually be beneficial. Moderate alcohol consumers have been shown to be thinner than teetotalers due to the ethanol found in alcohol, which improves the body’s response to insulin. One Harvard School of Public Health study even found that having one to two alcoholic drinks a day can reduce your risk of diabetes by 36 percent. And because alcohol increases your heart rate, it increases your metabolism up to an hour after your last sip. 

But let’s face it. Many of us do not limit our intake to a moderate level. Studies also show we tend to eat more when we drink—and chances are, it’s not health food. In fact, the satiety hormone, leptin, can be cut by as much as 30 percent after just three drinks. Research from Penn State shows that alcohol decreases protein synthesis by 15 to 20 percent after 24 hours after working out, but reportedly does not affect it within those first 24 hours. 

To be fair, present both sides of the alcohol argument and let your client decide what’s best. This way he or she is taking responsibility for the decision.


For clients to change their bodies, most will need to work out on their own between their weekly sessions with you. This is another area where self-sabotage often comes into play. 

“If your clients are hesitant to put in the extra work, try giving them workouts they can do while at home,” suggests Thomas. “This way they don’t feel like they’re putting in extra hours at the gym, but will still be able to follow a workout plan that will benefit them.”

McGrail recommends asking them direct questions such as, “‘Why are you skipping the extra workouts?’, ‘Do you not think you’re worth it?’, ‘How do you feel when you make the choice not to do your extra workouts?’, and ‘How would you feel if you made the choice and followed through?’ These are the kinds of conversations that you would have.”

When self-sabotaging is continual and nothing you do seems to help them break it, it may be time to bring other experts, such as a licensed counselor, into the mix. Doing so can give the client the extra mental and spiritual assistance they need to live up to their commitment to themselves, says McGrail, because sometimes the client’s issues go further than skin-deep into self-worth. 

“There is always some emotional and/or spiritual cause for this sort of behavior,” explains McGrail. “Are they using the extra weight as a defense mechanism for some reason? Do they not think they are worthy of looking and feeling good? Once these issues are dealt with, the client is usually good to go.”