Training the 5 Types of Fitness Clients

by Nick Tumminello on Sep 12, 2015

Ex Rx

And why it’s so important to make room for general health and fitness enthusiasts.

Most fitness professionals tailor their programming to five kinds of clients, who have five distinct training goals.

Reviewing the client types and their specific workout needs is helpful because it illustrates a divergence between what most trainers like to do and what most clients actually want. If we’re honest with ourselves as an industry, it’s probably true that we most readily identify with athletes, bodybuilders and people trying to lose weight, while our clients are most likely regular folks who want to be more fit and healthy.

To become more successful, we have to focus more on what the majority of our clients want. To help you sharpen your focus, this article describes

  • the five main types of clients and their key characteristics;
  • why fitness professionals have to wear three hats to address the diverse expectations of these clients; and
  • practical programming strategies for each type of client (see the sidebar “Training Strategies for the Five Kinds of Clients”).

Five Categories of Training Clients

Most fitness professionals’ clients fit into one of five categories based on why they’re exercising: physique, performance, physique + performance hybrid, fat loss, and general fitness and health. (This, of course, leaves out special populations such as people struggling with obesity or those going through postrehabilitation training.)

These are the primary characteristics of each type of client:

Physique Clients

  • They’re focused on aesthetics and want to maximize muscular development (they want bigger muscles).
  • They usually enjoy bodybuilding and prioritize their workouts and eating habits.
  • They tend to gauge success by how they look in the mirror (flexing) and by circumference measurements.

Performance Clients

  • They’re focused on athletics and are looking to maximize their physical ability (power, strength, conditioning, etc.) to succeed in/on a given field, court or combat sport.
  • They usually prioritize training and take it seriously, but they don’t always prioritize nutrition and lifestyle.
  • They tend to rate success by improvements from their baseline performance in strength-and-conditioning tests.

Physique + Performance Hybrid Clients

  • They’re usually recreational athletes or exercise enthusiasts who want to improve their physique and general athleticism without training to either extreme.
  • They usually prioritize training and take it seriously, but not all of them prioritize nutrition and lifestyle.
  • They tend to gauge success by changes in their physical appearance and/or by improvements from their baseline performance in strength-and-conditioning tests and fitness challenges.

Fat Loss Clients

  • They’re usually recreational exercisers who want to lose extra body fat while minimizing muscle loss.
  • They may not necessarily enjoy exercise. Many are frustrated at their inability to stick with diets that are unrealistic over the long term.
  • They often measure success by psychological factors (such as how well they do at improving eating behaviors and exercising more often) as well as physical factors (such as how they fit into their clothes, how they look in the mirror, and whether they’ve lost weight and body fat).
  • General Fitness and 
Health Clients

    • They’re usually recreational exercisers who are looking for overall health and fitness without specifically focusing on physique, performance or fat loss.
    • Many enjoy exercise but say they “don’t want to think” when they’re working out. They just want a great workout experience that challenges them but doesn’t hurt them.
    • Although they often assert that they want to lose some fat, they may not be interested in modifying their eating habits. Some may say they have no interest in changing their eating habits and are exercising as a weight management strategy to offset all the foods they love to eat.
    • They often gauge success by how much they enjoy each workout, how they feel at the end of the workout, and the fact that they have completed a certain number of workouts per week.

    The Fitness Professional’s Three Hats

    Clients’ multiple motivations for seeking out fitness professionals oblige us to wear three hats:

    • The coach. Physique and performance clients view the fitness professional as a coach who guides them through each aspect of their training and competition preparation.
    • The trainer. Physique + performance hybrid and fat loss clients view the fitness pro as someone who designs a training program for their specific needs and helps them adapt to it.
    • The adult “PE teacher.” General fitness and health clients view the fitness professional as a physical education teacher for adults. They want to be told what to do for a workout each time they visit.

    Reaching the Largest Fitness Audience

    It’s interesting to note that while general health and fitness clients are the least serious about the way they exercise, they are the most common type of exercisers and the ones most likely to be working with fitness professionals.

    The “three-hats” analogy explains why general fitness and health clients are so different from the other client types—they want a fitness pro who reminds them of their PE teacher from their school days. They don’t want a coach to help them win a championship, and they’re not seeking a training and diet regimen for losing 25 pounds. If we pretend they are just like all the rest of our clients, we’ll end up with an unhappy majority who won’t stick around because they’ll keep looking until they find someone who better understands them.

    Many fitness professionals refuse to acknowledge this reality. Some have adopted a training philosophy (that is, bias) and treat all clients alike, based on this perspective. They’re the fitness professionals who remain frustrated, wondering why their clients “don’t get it” or “don’t care” as much as they do.

    It’s usually not that these clients don’t care; it’s that they don’t care about what the fitness professionals want them to care about. These fitness pros just “don’t get it.”

    Bringing General Fitness Training Back to Fitness Professionals

    It’s essential to take a realistic, client-centered approach to programming versus an elitist, biased approach where every client has to fit into the fitness professional’s favored training philosophy.

    While it’s true that fitness pros often help general health and fitness clients morph into fat loss, physique, performance or hybrid clients, it’s important for fitness professionals to understand that regular exercise is very productive in and of itself. Too many fitness professionals seem to feel they’re wasting their time unless they’re training people for specific goals like physique or performance.

    There is much documented evidence supporting the physical and mental health benefits of regular physical activity. For the sake of general health and fitness clients, it’s worthwhile to remember these benefits:

  • decreased blood pressure and lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer (HHS 2008)
  • preservation of bone mass and reduced risk of falling, particularly in older adults (Nelson et al. 2007)
  • improved mood in people with mild to moderate depression, and potential for exercise to play a supporting role in treating severe depression (Researchers have found that exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of antidepressants, and that physical exercise reduced anxiety by causing remodeling in the brains of study participants who worked out. This evidence suggests that active people may be less susceptible than sedentary people to certain undesirable aspects of stress and anxiety [Miller 2011; Schoenfeld et al. 2013].)
  • improved sleep patterns, which can help people stay more alert in the daytime and sleep better at night (Driver & Taylor 2000)
  • enhanced feelings of “energy,” well-being and quality of life (Puetz 2006; Yau 2008; Conn, Halfdahl & Brown 2009)
  • stimulation of brain growth through the production and preservation of new brain cells and neurons, a process that enhances learning and memory and is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Van Praag et al. 1999; Laurin et al. 2001; Friedland et al. 2001)
  • delay of all-cause mortality (HHS 2008)
  • These studies spell out why general fitness and health clients shouldn’t be looked down on as people who are “satisfied with being mediocre.” And yet I’ve heard many fitness professionals describe them this way, simply because these clients aren’t interested in being gym rats who’re concerned with their deadlift performance or with building a wider back.

    Simply looking to stay active and improve one’s overall fitness and health while also enjoying exercise is a perfectly worthwhile goal. The client-centered fitness professional is happy to help facilitate this by wearing the PE-teacher-for-adults hat.

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    Driver, H.S., & Taylor, S.R. 2000. Exercise and sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 4 (4), 387-402. 

    Friedland, R.P., et al. 2001. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have reduced activities in midlife compared with healthy control-group members. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 98 (6), 3440-45.

    HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 2008. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008. Accessed Jul. 7, 2015.

    Laurin, D., et al. 2001. Physical activity and risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in elderly persons. Archives of Neurology, 58 (3), 498-504.

    Miller, M.C. 2011. Understanding Depression. Harvard Medical School. Accessed Jul. 7, 2015.

    Nelson, M.E., et al. 2007. Physical activity and public health in older adults: Recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (8), 1435-45.

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    Schoenfeld, T.J., et al. 2013. Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (18), 7770-77. 

    Tumminello, N. 2014. Strength Training for Fat Loss. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Van Praag, H., et al. 1999. Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 96 (23), 13427-431.

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    About the Author

    Nick Tumminello

    Nick Tumminello IDEA Author/Presenter

    Nick Tumminello is the director of Performance University and is a nationally-recognized coach and educator who is known for his smarter approach to strength and conditioning. He is the developer of the Core Bar™ and has authored numerous best-selling DVDs. Nick lives in Ft.Lauderdale, Florida, where he serves as the conditioning coach for Team Ground Control MMA. Certification: ACE CEC provider for: ACE