Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

personal trainer client fitnessWith all of the noise in a health club, from the energizing music to the clang of weights, grunts and groans, even a celebratory scream now and then, it’s sometimes difficult to hear yourself think. And it’s often more difficult to hear your client think.
If you aren’t hearing what your clients are thinking above the general commotion on the gym floor, you will miss important cues in both assisting them to achieve their fitness goals and to effectively promote their adherence to training — both business building necessities.

Successfully moving clients along the stability and mobility training → movement training → load training → performance training continuum builds entirely on bedrock of rapport.  Understanding your client’s readiness to change (see questionnaire on page 104 of the ACE Personal Trainer Manual) is important as well.

However, contemporary fitness psychologists, especially those anchored in cognitive-behavioral strategies, bring an understanding that suggests successful performance in a sport or in personal training is more than a function of physical skills — mental skills play a critically important role.

As a consummate trainer, you understand that your client’s anxiety, motivation, self-confidence, aggression, mental imagery, attention control and self-talk are as important to your client’s success as are functional and physiological assessments. 

Let’s focus on internal dialogue.  Self-dialogue, talk addressed to oneself, is filled with cognitions, interpretations of reality, feelings, perceptions, and is multi-dimensional, dynamic and serves both instructional and motivational purposes.

Self-talk that is instructional places attention on the technical aspects of executing tasks, while motivational self-dialogue increases goal-directed effort.

For the purpose of helping you immediately begin “hearing” and managing your clients’ self-talk, consider the following types of positive and negative self-talk that will likely appear in the gym:


  1. Calming/relaxing — “Breathe deeply”
  2. Instructional — “Keep my knee back behind my toes”
  3. Motivational — “I can do it!”
  4. Focus — “Engage my core”


  1. Performance worry —“I’ll be the last one to finish”
  2. Self-doubt — “Maybe I’m too old for this kind of a workout”
  3. Frustration/anger – "I hate doing 12 reps of lunges”

Explaining to new clients the importance of healthy posture is a given to ACE personal trainers. I want to be sure that explaining to new clients the importance of healthy self-talk for fitness training is also a given to ACE personal trainers. Help your client understand that while these thoughts are normal, they are as much an obstacle as muscle soreness or physical injury might be in postponing or preventing success in training.

Teach your clients the seven types of self-dialogue during the “Investigation” stage of the ACE IFT™ model of the client-trainer relationship. Explain that situations do not create feelings but rather what your client THINKS about a situation — exercise, the amount of weight, the length of a cardio session — determines what she/he feels. Those feelings will lead to certain behaviors that promote or derail exercise adherence and success.

Just as you might obtain health information from the Par-Q (page 106 of the ACE Personal Trainer Manual), help your client become more aware of self-talk by having her/him recording her/his thoughts in a personal and confidential workout logbook over a two or three day period, especially when preparing to come to the gym, during exercise and when leaving the gym.

Suggest the following method for creating and substituting more logical, accurate and rational thinking:

  1. Discuss situations in which the client tends to engage in one or more of the types of negative self-talk described above.
  2. Help the client “hear” the negative statement she/he says to her/himself by talking about the statements. Ask what evidence the client has for the validity of those self-statements.  Be prepared for your client being stumped.
  3. Use the “thought-stopping” technique (i.e., ask your client to shout as loud as humanly possible to oneself the word, “STOP” — or any other word that works) to help stop the negative thought.
  4. Develop a more logical, accurate, rational and positive/realistic thought — I suggest calling these “response counters.”
  5. Continually monitor your client’s self talk with your client during training, just as you might ask how your client is doing physically with respect to endurance and stamina.

There you have an introduction to the use of self-talk in physical training.  I’ll be discussing this in more depth at the ACE Fitness Symposium in November in San Diego. If you haven’t yet registered, be sure to do so. I look forward to seeing you then.

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