Building Positive Client Experiences

Active listening, coaching, and helping clients to identify roadblocks to success may be more critical than your program design, says Pete McCall, MS.

By Cedric X. Bryant, PhD
Dec 13, 2015

Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and longtime educator in the fitness industry. For the past 15 years, he has dedicated himself to helping clients improve their fitness levels and educating fitness professionals in countries ranging from Russia to Thailand. Prior to starting his own personal training and consulting business, McCall served as an exercise physiologist for ACE, where he was instrumental in helping to develop the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® Model and contributing to the ACE Personal Trainer Manual (4th Edition). A sought-after national expert, McCall has been featured in the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and in Runner’s World and Self. He holds a master’s degree in exercise science and health promotion, as well as several advanced certifications and specializations from
the National Strength and Conditioning Association and NASM.

ACE: What do you feel is the greatest challenge for personal trainers and other health and fitness professionals when it comes to working with clients affected by overweight and obesity?

Pete McCall: First and foremost, health and fitness professionals need to keep in mind that they are there to create a positive experience. Many individuals have an unfavorable opinion of exercise because it can cause discomfort or be perceived as painful. With this understanding in mind, it is important for professionals to focus initially on lower-intensity activities, in order to cultivate a positive relationship with physical activity and exercise. This is why we developed the ACE Integrated Fitness Training Model; we wanted to provide ACE Certified Pros with a roadmap
for how to make exercise engaging and help clients build adherence.

Lower-intensity exercises can boost clients’ success in a number of ways. For one, these exercises provide the stabilization strength and the mobility necessary to perform more challenging exercises later on. They also represent the first steps in accomplishing a larger goal, which is making physical activity or exercise a regular habit. Once a client has achieved initial success by exercising consistently over a period of weeks or months, a personal trainer can increase the level of intensity to help that person expend more energy and develop lean muscle mass. If a trainer increases the level of difficulty too soon, it can cause discomfort and lead the client to decide that the outcomes of exercise aren’t worth the physical discomfort.

ACE: What type of education, if any, do you believe would equip health and fitness professionals to better serve clients affected by overweight and obesity?

Pete McCall: Two of the most crucial skills are active listening and coaching. Professionals have to understand why a client is in a situation and help him or her identify obstacles to success. Once the obstacles are recognized through motivational interviewing, it is possible to plan strategies for overcoming those obstacles.

For example, a client might cite a stressful job that often requires staying late. In that case, it would be important to identify strategies for carving out time to exercise and making smart nutritional choices when a schedule changes at the last minute. The ACE Health Coach Certification was developed to help fitness professionals acquire these skills, which, in my opinion, are more important than knowing how to design an exercise program. The simple truth is that no exercise program in the world will produce the desired effect if a client can’t first change his or her behavior to make healthier choices, including making time for exercise.

ACE: When it comes to adherence among all clients, what can health and fitness professionals do better?

Pete McCall: Learn how to work as a member of a larger team with other fit-
ness professionals. If you work in a health club, don’t be afraid to recommend group fitness classes. I often recommend other classes to clients because I would rather have them take a cycling class or dance class than not exercise. From my experience, I’ve found that if I recommend classes to my clients, instructors will return the favor and recommend me as a trainer. I want my clients to experience physical activity in a group because that will help them make friends and enjoy the overall experience at the club, which contributes to long-term adherence. If they enjoy the experience, then they will appreciate me for pointing them in the right direction.

Another important factor for professionals to consider is working with other trainers in their area—not against them. I’ve shared clients with trainers and actually recommended other people who have different skill sets than I have, because I want to see those clients achieve success. If a person has certain needs that I can’t meet, then it’s in both of our interests to find the right trainer to meet those needs. There is some fear about losing clients, but
I would rather lose a client by having that individual work with a trainer who is right for him or her than facilitate a negative experience because I wasn’t the best trainer to meet that client’s specific needs.

ACE: What advice do you have for health and fitness professionals who want to work more seamlessly with healthcare professionals in their communities?

Pete McCall: Know your scope of practice, work within it, and take every opportunity to meet other health and fitness professionals in your area. Personal trainers can design exercise programs for apparently healthy adults and provide basic nutritional advice to help clients learn how to read nutrition labels and make healthier choices for meals and snacks. Trainers cannot provide specific meal plans, because it is outside their defined scope of practice.

Knowing those boundaries enables professionals to fill an essential role in the overall healthcare continuum. Doctors know that many patients may need to lose weight to improve their health, but doctors may lack the specific skills or time to provide useful instruction. In the same manner, health and fitness professionals must know what they can and cannot do. Honoring that responsibility can help establish the relationships with primary care physicians that one day can lead to client referrals.

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Cedric X. Bryant, PhD

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