Shana Verstegen by Shana Verstegen

“When you know the why, you are willing to try.” Credit goes to the 2006 ACE Personal Trainer of the Year Jonathan Ross for that assessment. 

In the early days of personal training, the “fit folks” in the gym were asked to help the newbies. The programs these fit folks put together usually consisted of the exercises that worked for them, with little or no concern for the person they were working with. Many years, and outstanding certifications like ACE, later, we now know better. The workout we are giving to our clients is not our workout, but something that is tailored specifically to their needs and goals. If they understand why and how this program is custom-made for them, they will be more motivated and, therefore, more likely to succeed with their training. 

Finding Their WHY

Before we can program for our clients and explain to them why they are doing each exercise, we must understand why they are coming to us in the first place. The process of dissecting a client’s goals can range from simple to challenging. If their goal is to lose weight, for example, we must help them break it down using the “SMART” principle.

Specific: How much weight do they want to lose?

Measureable: Will we measure progress with a scale, calipers, circumference measurements, underwater weighting or clothing size?

Achievable: Is this a goal this individual can actually achieve? How much work will it take to get to that weight-loss goal?

Realistic: Are they exceeding the ideal weight loss threshold of 1 to 2 pounds per week?

Time Bound: In what time frame will this goal be achieved? Is that enough time? 

Once we have “SMARTED” our client’s goals, we now have an objective template to work with in our programing. But what about deeper layers of the goal? Why does this client really want to lose the weight? So she can look better for a trip to Cancun? So she can get off of blood pressure meds? To finally be able to play with her grandchildren? These deeper “whys” are by far the most important. 

Programming Around Their WHY

Now that we know the client’s goal, have it “SMARTED” and hopefully have a deeper understanding of her reasons for coming to us, it’s time to use that information for program design. This is what makes us more like artists than trainers.

It is very easy for trainers to Google a workout and give this program to all of their clients for the week; sadly, many trainers work by this routine. Unfortunately, they have removed the “personal” from personal training.

Every single exercise we give to our clients should somehow map toward their goals. And not just the exercises, but the sets, reps and organization of the program as well. Imagine your clients are going to ask “why” after every exercise. This is highly unlikely, but are you prepared to give a detailed answer on how any given exercise will help them reach their goals? 

Telling Them Our WHY

And now the fun part—actually explaining to your clients why they are doing some of the goofy things you are asking them to do. For example, “This exercise is loosening up your hip flexors so that you can get better rotation on your golf swing and help eliminate your back pain.” 

Here are some tips from top trainers on how and why they use their “why.” 

Explaining to a client why they are doing a particular exercise will aid in building and maintaining rapport, one of the most important aspects of personal training. “It's important to explain the "why" so that a client knows that we have truly LISTENED to his or her personal goals and needs and designed a program accordingly, says Lauren Birkel, owner of Orange Shoe Personal Fitness in Madison, Wis. “This also helps to build a stronger relationship between client and trainer.” 

These simple explanations will help motivate your clients to be willing to try new things, and actually enjoy them. They will take on a new ownership of their exercise program, which will lead to success and adherence. “Sometimes as trainers we show an exercise to a client for a very specific purpose of improving their movement. But it might be odd-looking or feel weird,” says Ross, owner of Aion Fitness in Bowie, Md. “This is when developing in clients an understanding of what will get better in their lives and in their bodies from this exercise can be useful. And this can only come from trust. If the client knows you have their best interests in mind in all things, then they trust you. And if they trust you, they will be willing to try.”  

Sharing the “why” not only gives us personal credibility, but also credibility to the profession of personal training. We are no longer just the “fit folks” in the gym, we are educated, certified and experienced. 

“If it makes sense to them, they are more willing to do what it takes to get to their goals,” explains Hayley Hollander, fitness director of Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago, Ill. “Whether it's a single exercise that helps decrease their low-back pain, or an interval cardio session targeted at maximizing caloric burn in a shorter amount of time to get them to their weight-loss goal. When a coach provides the knowledge behind the exercise, we build credibility in our profession, our programs and our purpose of helping others.” 

And now, time for your action plan:

1. Sit down and establish concrete goals with your clients, including finding the deeper reasons they have those goals.

2. Review all of your programing and ensure everything you are having them do directly reflects the goals they have provided.

3. Tell them about it during their workouts in a way that is appropriate to them.