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Applying Learning Theories to Personal Training

Learning Theories and Personal Training

Updated on November 2, 2021

Successful personal trainers are effective teachers and know how to apply learning theories. 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 focuses on applying learning theories, and the following is taken from the mind of educator Madeline Hunter. These theories can also be used to increase the value of personal training.

See also: The Science of Willpower

Learning Theories in Action: Six Variables

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. Stimulate interest by drawing on the client’s learning strengths (visual, auditory or tactile-kinesthetic). This is all part of embracing learning theories.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Knowledge of Results. This occurs when you provide valuable feedback that is immediate, specific and growth-oriented, and that preserves dignity. This too can be categorized under the umbrella of learning theories.
  • 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.”
  1. 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.

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.

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