Brain-Based Personal Training

by: Terry Eckmann, PhD

Use tried-and-true learning styles and techniques to harness the power of the mind and motivate clients.

Successful personal trainers are essentially effective teachers. While personal training in part involves changing the body, teaching is the art of changing the brain—not physically rewiring it, but arranging information and experiences to stimulate learning. Learning involves a change in behavior and alters thinking and perception. Personal trainers must have strong core knowledge of biomechanics, program design, exercise science, behavioral science, nutrition and weight management principles in order to stimulate change in clients and lead them to desired results. But this core knowledge isn’t always enough.

By using information about how the brain works and how clients learn, brain-based personal training and program design gives trainers a necessary edge to succeed. When you understand why a client cannot comply with a program or how you can maximize motivation, you become a primary player in the client’s attempts to attain true wellness. This article will explore the brain and how it learns; take a brief look at brain anatomy and physiology; touch on learning styles; and also look at learning theories and lesson design as they relate to personal training.

The Brain and How It Learns

Learning changes the brain. The brain rewires itself with each new stimulus, experience and behavior (Jensen 1998). A stimulus begins the process of learning. The stimulus may be instruction on how to perform an exercise, along with a model of how to perform it. The stimulus is then sorted and processed through pre-existing knowledge filters as we try to make sense of the information. As we add experience to that stimulus to reinforce it, memory begins to form in the brain through the development of neuronal networks. The more experience we add, the more physical the learning in the brain becomes (through the development of neuronal networks), making it easier for us to access the information.

New information is physically stored in the brain in a neuronal network. This is an essential concept to keep in mind when facilitating change in clients. Each client has prior knowledge (right or wrong); this is a fact. Prior knowledge is persistent and the beginning of new knowledge (Zull 2002). Helping clients change behaviors is often a challenge, because incorrect prior knowledge will create responses, choices or movements that you are trying to help clients transform.

When we learn something, whether it’s how to execute a squat or where the oblique muscles are and what they do, the memory physically becomes a part of the brain. Neuroscientists have found that the brain is flexible, or plastic; it is an adaptable organ that can be molded with information just as a muscle can be sculpted by lifting weights (Ratey 2008). Our brains are composed of nerve cells, chemicals and electrical impulses, and our memories are encoded, stored and retrieved as a result of chemical and electrical interactions (Small 2003).

Learning and memory are closely aligned; there cannot be one without the other (Jensen 1998). If we learn something, the evidence of that learning is memory. Learning enables information to cross over the lines of perception into memory and, once stored, these memories affect future learning (Ratey 2002). Our beliefs, knowledge and experiences are physical in the brain. They create the filters through which we see the world. According to Wolfe (2001), information that makes sense and fits into an existing neuronal network has a better chance of storage than information that doesn’t. This is important to remember as you assess clients and discern what they need from you in order to learn.

Basic Anatomy and Physiology

The anatomy and physiology of the brain are fascinating and complex. The brain accounts for about 2% of the body’s adult weight, but it consumes approximately 20% of the body’s energy and one-fifth of the body’s oxygen (Wolfe 2001). The brain receives about 8 gallons of blood each hour. Blood is the primary source of nutrients (glucose, protein, trace elements) and oxygen. The brain needs 8–12 glasses of water a day for optimal functioning (Jensen 1998).

The prefrontal cortex of the brain organizes activity, both mental and physical. It receives input and issues instructions through an extensive network of neuronal connections. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s chief executive officer (CEO) and is responsible for initiating action, judging, planning and predicting. The prefrontal cortex works closely with all areas of the brain, particularly the cerebellum, which can be considered the chief operating officer (COO). The cerebellum, which coordinates movements, also coordinates thoughts, attention, emotions and even social skills (Ratey 2008).

The brain is made up of 100 billion neurons, which are responsible for processing information. A neuron, or nerve cell, consists of a cell body, axons and dendrites. Each neuron in the brain has a single axon, which acts like a telephone line, conducting nerve impulses toward neighboring neurons’ dendrites (antenna-like projections), and this “branching process” conducts impulses toward the cell (Small 2003). The junctions between one neuron and another are called synapses. Neurons transmit signals to one another through electrical impulses. Neurotransmitters carry these signals across the synapses from neuron to neuron via the axon to dendrites. Dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are thought to be the most essential neurotransmitters in processing information for learning (although many more are also involved). Neurotransmitters carry signals, while neurotrophins, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), build and maintain the cell circuitry.

Cardiovascular exercise is like Miracle-Gro® for the brain, as it helps to grow dendrites, which are essential for receiving signals and delivering them to the cell body (Ratey 2002). As information is reviewed and practiced in various ways, it is processed and stored in the brain more quickly. Ratey (2008) compares the neuron to a tree. Instead of leaves, the “tree” has synapses along its dendritic branches and, with continual practice, review and processing, connections that create learning and memory grow and solidify. In essence, through your careful instruction you are helping clients’ brains grow in concert with their goals.

Application of Learning Theories to Personal Training

You now have a basic understanding of the brain and how it learns. You can leverage this knowledge to bolster your effectiveness as a trainer. One way to do this is with graceful application of learning theories. The following learning theories from the mind of groundbreaking educator Madeline Hunter have been successfully implemented in classrooms and in the professional coaching area for decades (Hunter 1982). These theories can also be used to increase the value of personal training.

Motivation Theory

Motivation is the reason or reasons for engaging in a particular behavior. It is essential that you create an environment that will nourish your client’s desire to learn, grow and change. Motivation is at its peak when there is a positive balance among the following six variables:

1. Level of Concern. Clients are more likely to be motivated to change if they are concerned about the consequences. For example, if you want to raise the level of concern for a client who is focused on training his lower body, emphasize the significance of performing a squat by telling him that it is one of the top five exercises for the lower body.

2. Feeling Tone. This affects the client-trainer relationship and the comfort of the environment in which the training takes place. Let your words, vocal inflection, body language and listening skills all contribute to a positive feeling tone.

3. Interest. Elevate the client’s interest by using effective communication skills, understanding the client’s personal interests and personality, and exploring the client’s learning styles (see the sidebar “Review of Learning Styles”). Stimulate interest by drawing on the client’s learning strengths (visual, auditory or tactile-kinesthetic).

Introduce variety into the session. For example, one client became significantly more interested in doing elements of her program when they became the “high-heel” machine (which would shape the muscles of her lower leg) and the “halter top” exercises (which would shape her arms and back). She was not in the least bit interested in strengthening her gastrocnemius, triceps, biceps, pectorals, deltoids or lats until clothing on a sculpted body was part of the picture.

4. Success. The perceived level of accomplishment that a client experiences defines success. Carefully select exercises to match the person’s fitness, effort and ability level. If the moves are too hard or too easy, the end result is negatively affected. The best foundation for learning includes competence and confidence (Caine et al. 2005).

5. Knowledge of Results. This occurs when you provide valuable feedback that is immediate, specific and growth-oriented, and that preserves dignity.

  • Feedback is more effective when it is immediate (given at the time the move is executed) than when it is conveyed at the end of the session.

  • If the feedback is specific—for example, “Your knees are aligned with your ankles as you perform the squat”—you reinforce instructional cues and foster a feeling of success.

  • Feedback is growth-oriented if the client knows there is a plan for improvement: “Since you were able to maintain proper body alignment while performing the squat, we’ll add light weights in the next session to increase your workload.”

  • It is essential that feedback preserves dignity. If a client is unable to perform a squat, you might say, “It could be some time before you’re comfortable with this movement, as it is a challenging exercise. We’ll try it again next session.”

6. Reward. Reward is intrinsic if the client performs a task that is interesting, challenging and exciting. You may provide an extrinsic reward in the form of documentation of success, a water bottle to celebrate reaching a goal or just a high-five and/or positive words of encouragement.

Attribution Theory

Attribution Theory deals with the human need to explain why things happen, in an attempt to gain control or increase predictability. This theory serves as the foundation for our constant search for causes of success and failure. A client’s perception of causality, rather than reality, is critical because it influences self-confidence, self-control and self-concept. It also affects future expectations and motivation. Clients will be more successful if they believe success depends more on their personal effort than on chance. If a client experiences learned helplessness—the perception that no matter what she does, she will fail (Seligman 1998), you will have to work harder to change negative thinking patterns and enable the client to form new beliefs.

You can help clients succeed by assisting them in sorting out what they can control and what they cannot. If a client uses the excuse that she feels guilty taking time away from family to exercise, you might help her develop a list of reasons why a healthy lifestyle adds value to the family. If a client blames overeating on stress at work or home, you can help him identify alternate responses to dealing with stress triggers. You might also offer “thoughts for the day” that provide encouragement (for example, “Success comes in cans, not in can’ts” or “There’s always room for improvement; it’s the biggest room in the house”). These tidbits can help a client stay focused and, in time, change attitudes about self-control and success. Share these thoughts at the end of each session, via e-mail and/or in a training log.

Retention Theory

Retention involves preserving information in such a way that it can be located, identified and retrieved for future use. Information is remembered longer if it is meaningful and is related to the learner’s own life and experiences (Wolfe 2001). Keeley’s research found that students forgot 90% of a lecture after 14 days (1997). Memory is lost over time—use it or lose it! It’s essential that you consistently review and rehearse information with clients to strengthen their neuronal networks and help increase the clients’ ability to access information. The less time elapses between introducing new information and reviewing it, the better the chance of retention (Schenk 2003). Ask yourself the following four questions to facilitate retention:

1. How much should a client learn and experience in a session? This will vary based on what the client already knows. Remember that less is more. Too much information, especially initially, may hinder retention.

2. How long should a client spend on learning an exercise or completing a training session? Each person is different. Observe body language, as this can be very helpful in deciding when it is time to move on. Fitness level, exercise experience and time available to invest in training will all help determine session duration.

3. How often should a client see you? A new client will benefit from more frequent sessions, to facilitate retention. Too much time between sessions allows time to forget information. For seasoned clients, frequency often depends on goals and time available to invest in training.

4. How will a client know how well he or she is doing (feedback)? Be sure your feedback is immediate, specific and growth- oriented, and that it preserves dignity (see “Motivation Theory”).

Transfer Theory

Transfer is the process of applying what is learned in one setting to other, similar situations. Clients will experience “positive transfer” if prior learning experiences assist them in acquiring the new knowledge they are receiving. For example, if a client had a positive experience in physical education classes, she may feel quite comfortable exercising in a gym setting. Clients can also experience “negative transfer,” which occurs when prior learning experiences hinder them from acquiring new knowledge. This might happen if a client had negative experiences with sports or physical education. Individual beliefs also play a role. For example, if a female client believes that “lifting weights” will create a “bulky body,” it may take her more time to progress in a strength training program. If a client believes that skipping breakfast will help him lose weight, it may be more challenging for him to change that behavior.

Remember that clients have prior knowledge that affects how they respond to training. To facilitate learning, continually explore a client’s prior knowledge and belief system. Because what we know is physical in the brain, it takes time to “extinguish” old neuronal networks and develop new ones (Jensen 2000). Therefore, change takes time. You can facilitate transfer of learning by applying one or all of these four variables: similarity, association, degree of original learning and critical attributes.

Apply similarity by looking for likeness in learning situations. For example, facilitate understanding of perceived exertion by having clients warm up on a variety of equipment. They will experience elevated breathing, heart rate and core temperature, as well as feelings of muscle exertion. They will also learn to identify their perceived exertion levels for various activities (treadmill walking, biking, rowing).

Association occurs when new learning is paired or associated with existing knowledge. If a client has been trained to perform an abdominal crunch on a mat with good body alignment, you can more easily transfer that movement to a stability ball.

Successful transfer of learning is influenced by the degree of original learning. The brain constantly searches through existing neural networks to find a way to make sense of incoming information (Wolfe 1998). Just as it is important to understand a client’s prior knowledge and beliefs, it is vital to make sure that the information on board is correct and fully understood before you move on to new information.

Identification of critical attributes can also play an important role in transferring information to working memory. For example, think about the critical attributes of moves that strengthen the oblique muscles. The rib moves toward the opposite hip, the trunk rotates and flexes, and the engagement of the trunk is felt in the oblique muscles. These muscles can be viewed on an anatomical picture and palpated with the hands. Awareness of these critical attributes helps a client transfer prior knowledge of a basic move to more advanced core exercises.

True Mind and Body Power

It is beneficial to understand how to effectively design training sessions for both the body and the brain. Reflective personal trainers who understand how to enhance learning and behavior change will be less likely to fall into a rut, because they are always looking for ways to improve and accomplish goals. As you learn more about the brain, learning theory and lesson design (see the sidebar “Eight Elements of Lesson Design”), you may find that you are unconconsciously competent, meaning that you have already been applying many of these theories in training sessions without knowing it (until now). As you learn how to implement more brain-based training principles, take the next step toward conscious competence. This will increase client success as you grow your business.


References and Resources

Caine, R.N., et al. 2005. 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action: Developing Executive Functions of the Human Brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Grinder, M. 1991. Righting the Educational Conveyor Belt. Portland, OR: Metamorphous Press.

Hunter, M. 1982. Mastery Teaching: Increasing Instructional Effectiveness in Elementary and Secondary Schools, Colleges and Universities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hunter, R. 2004. Madeline Hunter’s Mastery Teaching: Increasing Instructional Effectiveness in Elementary and Secondary Schools Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Jensen, E. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jensen, E. 2000. Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Keeley, M. 1997. The Basics of Effective Learning. Unpublished manuscript, Bucks County College (online). www.bucks

.edu/specpopmemory.htm; retrieved Aug. 2008.

Markova, D., & Powell, A. 1992. How Your Child Is Smart: A Life-Changing Approach to Learning. Emeryville, CA: Conari Press.

Moore, K. 2006. Classroom Teaching Skills (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Ratey, J. 2002. A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain New York: Vintage.

Ratey, J. 2008. SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown.

Schenck, J. 2003. Learning, Teaching, and the Brain: A Practical Guide for Educators. Thermopolis. WY: Knowa Publishing.

Seligman, M. 1998. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York, NY: Vintage.

Small, G. 2003. The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young. New York: Hyperion.

Sprenger, M. 2008. Differentiation Through Learning Styles and Memory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wolfe, P. 1998. Revisiting Effective Teaching. Educational Leadership, 56 (3), 61–64.

Wolfe, P. 2001. Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zull, J. 2002. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

IDEA Fitness Journal , Volume 5, Issue 11

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Terry Eckmann, PhD

Terry Eckmann, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Terry Eckmann, PhD, is an associate professor at Minot State University and has over 25 years experience in the fitness industry. She authored chapters for the ACSM personal training manual and health...