Training for Success

by Keri Schwab, MS on Feb 09, 2009

PFT Director

By building client self-efficacy, personal trainers can retain clients while helping them reach their goals.

Personal training is a financial staple at many fitness centers. It boosts revenue for individual staff members and increases overall center profits. It also teaches members proper exercise techniques and how to build healthy habits so they can achieve their goals. However, many members avoid personal training because they don’t believe in their own ability to succeed. Two key thoughts drive their visions of failure: “I can’t keep up with the rigors of personal training” and “Even if I do keep up, my body will never look as trim and fit as my trainer's, so why bother?”

This pessimistic attitude breeds a lack of effort, which ultimately leads to failure. But this does not have to be the case. If trainers are aware of the mental stress clients face before and during sessions, and know something about the psychology of “self-efficacy,” or belief in one’s ability to succeed, they can better understand how to ease a client’s mind, increase confidence and effort and ultimately ensure success.

Why Self-Efficacy Works

With origins in behavioral psychology, self-efficacy is part of a larger concept called social-cognitive learning, which suggests that people learn behaviors and social norms by observing those around them. Watching others provides people with a guide for how they should behave in social settings or when interacting with others. As efficacy is built around watching others, the four ways of building it will come easily to trainers, who are natural models for their clients. Once efficacy is up, effort and determination also go up, and improved effort equals improved results, which leads to happy members.

Many studies indicate that mastering a task is the quickest route to building self-efficacy. But because of the potential anxiety or concerns new clients may have regarding their physical abilities, trainers should work from the inside out, dealing first with moods and emotions, and moving outward to persuasion, modeling and finally mastery.

Step 1: Mood Elevation

At the beginning of a session, the trainer addresses any emotions or nervous energy the client may be experiencing, such as anxiety, fear and self-consciousness. A client who is worried about his ability to exercise or do movements without injury, embarrassment, fatigue or failure is more emotionally charged than the average, confident exerciser. Anticipation of possible public humiliation, pain or a mental or physical breakdown can be debilitating and even more painful than the exercise itself. In such an emotional state, the client’s ability to listen, follow directions and coordinate mind and body are all hindered. A person with low self-efficacy who is in emotional distress is not likely to perform any new exercise very well.

The best trainer will listen, empathize, understand and calm the client. Teach personal training staff to build rapport by asking clients about their day, work, children, the weather or whatever will ease anxiety and create a better mood. Trainers can also ask clients directly what they feel fearful about or can show them around the gym to make them feel more comfortable with the setting. Once a client relaxes and feels at ease, she will be in a better position to listen, watch and learn.

Step 2: Verbal Persuasion

Once the client is in a more positive mood, the trainer talks about specific exercises the pair will practice. Good, old-fashioned verbal persuasion, such as coaxing the client into trying new exercises, builds efficacy and requires little time or effort. Persuasion works in the short term because it involves the trainer, now a trusted friend, who is expressing solid confidence in the client’s ability to succeed. The trainer is now moving the client further from fear and doubt and closer to self-affirming and positive thoughts about exercise.

It’s important that the trainer talk only about realistic exercise goals while exuding confidence that the client can meet these goals. For example, telling a novice exerciser that he can run a marathon is using persuasion for an unrealistic accomplishment, and this only invites failure. Offering the client a pep talk about his ability to run and then also asking the client to say positive things about himself and his running ability is a more positive approach. It’s a good practice to reinforce the client’s belief that he can succeed with continual verbal persuasion throughout training sessions. The key to sincere persuasion is for it to be specific and immediately applicable and attainable.

Step 3: Vicarious Experience

The next step toward efficacy is for the trainer to model exercises for the client. In self-efficacy terms, this is called “vicarious experience,” as the client visually experiences someone else performing a movement. It is key that the trainer conduct the exercise with exceptional form and indicate that the movement will not cause pain, injury or embarrassment. Linking back to social-cognitive learning, seeing another perform an exercise should convince the client that the movement is safe. Watching will also help the client mentally persuade herself that she, too, can do the movement.

When modeling, there are three points to keep in mind:

  • When feasible, consider placing same-sex and same-age clients and trainers together. The more similar the model, the more likely the client is to believe that he can do what he sees the trainer doing.
  • Trainers must talk about the specific physical feelings that may result from an exercise and be clear and detailed regarding what to expect. This will ease any lingering anxiety and provide realistic expectations.
  • If possible, have the trainer walk the client around the gym to watch what others are doing. This gives the client an image of what she will be trying, and she will observe other people being successful. The client will be persuaded that if the movement is safe for a variety of others, it must also be safe for her.

Step 4: Mastery

If the trainer has worked through the three previous self-efficacy steps, the client should be emotionally and mentally ready to try an exercise. This brings the client to the most powerful way of increasing exercise self-efficacy: mastery, or actually accomplishing the exercise. Doing something the client previously had doubts about provides the person with an “authentic” experience of success (Bandura 1997). It also proves the client’s ability, overrides fears and provides a base for trying again. Each successful attempt adds to the client’s efficacy, which in turn feeds persistence, determination and willingness to try.

During this step, it is important for the trainer to set the client up for success and ask him to attempt challenging yet realistic and attainable tasks. Failure will deflate the client. Additionally, the trainer should continue to give the client specific feedback and positive reinforcement. For example, saying, “You did a great job keeping your knees over your toes during the squat” is preferable to “Nice squat.” Telling the client exactly what he did well will continue to reinforce his budding self-efficacy. Actual successes and mental reinforcement are also important so that if a client does fail, it won’t seem as bad, because he knows victory was, and hence still is, possible.

Activating Self-Efficacy

As a fitness manager, you educate personal training staff on an ongoing basis. You already update certifications, offer workshops and prep staff on the psychology of personal training, which are all key components of a successful business. However, teaching trainers how to work with clients’ fears, attitudes and anxieties is often overlooked. Clients need emotional and mental support. They may, in fact, need to be taught how to believe in themselves and cope with fears and anxieties.

A person who has greater self-efficacy is likely to generalize this to other aspects of life. Activated self-efficacy can also lead to improved coping skills and a persistent attitude that will benefit the client in and out of the fitness facility. Personal trainers can set people up for success, not just in the gym, but in life in general.



Bandura, A. 1977. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 (2), 191-215.

Bandura, A. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

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About the Author

Keri Schwab, MS

Keri Schwab, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Keri Schwab, MS, is a doctoral student in the department of parks, recreation and tourism at the University of Utah. Her research interests include parents’ attitudes and behaviors regarding family recreation and finding ways to overcome leisure barriers. She is also building her mountain biking efficacy through similar-peer modeling and specific feedback from her friends.