In a perfect world, the personal training business would be entirely results-driven. Clients would come to you to achieve a certain result, whether aesthetics-oriented or performance-oriented. You’d give them a well-designed training program, which they’d implement perfectly. They’d get the great results they desire, and everyone would be happy.
As simple and pragmatic as that would be, it’s not how things work. In reality, how you make your clients feel is at least as important as the outcome of the programs you design. One of the biggest determinants of your success as a trainer (and your success as a business owner) is how your clients feel while they’re at your facility and after they leave.
Even when trainers are keyed into this, they often overlook the biggest point of interaction between themselves and their clients: vocabulary.
This article focuses on four word choices that are commonly heard in the personal training landscape and explores how to shift them to create a more positive and successful client experience.
The Science of Words
The words you use can have a profound impact on how people feel and what actions they take. In functional MRI brain studies, the word “yes” preferentially activates the frontal lobe of the brain—the part of the brain most associated with decision making and high-level thought—whereas the word “no” shuts down this part of the brain. Negativity actually makes it harder for us to learn and process new information.
In another study of how language shapes the reality of human experience, researchers assigned sentences containing information that participants might or might not know to be factually correct. Depending on how concrete the words in a sentence were, the individuals judged the statement to be more or less true. In other words, saying something that is untrue but using very concrete verbs to say it can cause someone to assume that it is true.
These are just two of hundreds of examples from the scientific literature regarding how language shapes the way people see and perceive their world. The bottom line is this: The quickest way to make clients feel happier and perform better is to use language with positive connotations as much as possible. Here are a few game changers.
Substitute “Pregression” for “Regression”
Our fitness trainer lexicon is filled with technical terms that we use without a second thought. One of these words, regression, implies something we probably don’t intend it to: that the client is returning to a previous or less-developed state. A regression isn’t an exercise that is easier to do than the one we want performed; it’s actually an exercise that clients could do in the past and now are no longer able to do. Besides likely being inaccurate, the word implies that clients should be able to do something and can’t. This is damaging.
A better term for this type of exercise is pregression. Let’s say you have a goal exercise in mind, such as a pull-up. A pregression for that exercise might be a lat pull-down or an assisted pull-up variation. The prefix pre suggests to clients that this is something they do before they do the pro-gression, not something they should already be able to do but are failing at.
Ask the Question, “Can I Do This?”
Poll a group of training clients about why people hire a trainer, and a common response will probably be “I just want to be told what to do.” This might tempt you to take a more dictatorial training approach, but that would be a mistake. Research on the self-determination theory has shown that the more control and choice clients have over their own process, the better they do over time.
The easiest way to implement this is to change the form of your imperatives to a question starting with the word can. For example, instead of telling a client to grab the 20-pound dumbbells, you’d ask, “Can you do this with 20-pound dumbbells?” Besides giving the client ownership of the training, this small tweak has a cunning side effect: Clients start asking themselves, “Can I do this?”
Recognize That Better Is Best
When it comes to training programs, diets and exercises, your clients want the very best. And why shouldn’t they? Best is optimal, right? Unfortunately, as living and breathing biological systems we can never really know best. At any given time, what is best is a moving target. And even if you did know what was best, that condition may be so far from what your clients are currently doing or able to do that the word choice creates a chasm between where they are now and where they are trying to go. That sets clients up for a feeling of failure whenever they do not achieve what is “best.”
What you can do instead is to constantly seek things that are better. You might find exercises that suit individuals better than what they were using in the past. Or your clients might be able to make a better choice with regard to diet, rather than thinking that they can ever know what is truly the best choice. Constantly seeking to do better rather than failing to do best means that clients succeed more often than they fail. All that’s required is to replace the word best with the word better.
Choose to “Gain” Instead of “Lose”
“Lose fat!” “Lose inches!” “Lose weight!” In this industry we spend a lot of time talking about losing, which is interesting because humans are afflicted with a cognitive bias known as “loss aversion.” In short, people would much prefer to avoid losses than to acquire gains. While rationally no one would be averse to losing fat, in this regard our own psychology seems to be working against us.
What you can do instead is replace the word lose with the word gain. Clients stand to gain so much from working with good trainers—not in terms of body fat, in all likelihood, but in terms of function. Strength, self-confidence, health, a great social network and even inches in the right places are all things that clients can gain from their work in the gym.
Instead of talking about something that your clients may want to avoid, shift the conversation to what they can gain. Completely flip the script on what is normal, what is expected and what is probably not productive.
Use Your Words Wisely
Of everything in your training arsenal, words are by far your most powerful tool. Crafting your words as carefully as you do your training programs will benefit your clients—and your bottom line—more than you can imagine.
Alia-Klein, N., et al. 2007. What is in a word? No versus yes differently engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex.” Emotion, 7 (3), 649-59.
Hansen, J., & Wanke, M. 2010. Truth from language and truth from fit: The impact of linguistic concreteness and level of construal on subjective truth. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (11), 1576-88.
Katz, I., & Assor, A. 2006. When choice motivates and when it does not. Educational Psychology Review, 19 (4), 429-42.