Think back to a time when you achieved a significant goal. Maybe you worked hard to gain a new certification or you upped your own fitness game to run a marathon.
Chances are your journey had a lot of ups and downs. As you learned more about your strengths and weaknesses, perhaps you pivoted to adopt an approach that suited you better, because no plan is perfect. Maybe that approach involved coloring outside the lines a bit, but it worked!
When you reach a certain level of personal and professional experience, you may feel you have the magic solution that will solve every client’s problems. If it worked for client A, it’ll work for client B, right? Many fitness professionals become complacent and use an unofficial template when working with clients. The trouble is, no two clients are alike. Even if one client thrives on your method, the next person might stall on it. With this in mind, it’s critical to be flexible and open-minded. If you impose the same model universally, you and your clients will wind up feeling frustrated.
It may be uncomfortable to step out of the “I know it all” mindset, but if you’re truly dedicated to inspiring the world to fitness, it’s crucial that you listen and learn from others to discover the approaches that resonate with a wide range of people. The following success stories, told from the client point of view, reveal tactics you may or may not find in a book. These are real-life accounts of people who reached their goals and achieved long-term success with strategies that were not constrained by a template. Although the methods differ, each person found a solution that was manageable and approachable—both key characteristics of a successful lifestyle transformation.
Exercise and Pain Management: Adam Heaney
To look at him now, you’d never guess that Adam Heaney in Minneapolis was once dangerously close to needing back surgery. Just over a year ago, the 35-year-old former advertising producer was in so much pain that he could manage only 3 hours of sleep at a stretch. Today, he’s swinging kettlebells and chasing a 300-pound dead-lift goal.
Like many, Heaney was active in high-school and college sports but became sedentary once he started working in an office 5 days a week. His inactive lifestyle lasted 3 years without incident until one day he noticed a new pain in his lower back. At first, it was a minor annoyance, but over time it worsened until the pain was so severe it affected his appetite, sleep and movement. “On a scale of 1–10, the pain was at an 8,” Heaney recalls.
He soon learned he had a herniated disk and was teetering on the edge of spinal degeneration.
Desperate, he decided to try a steroid injection, but his doctor warned him that if the injection didn’t work, back surgery might be the only alternative. To Heaney’s relief, the pain gradually lessened. The injection had worked its magic, and surgery was officially off the table. Right away, Heaney started down the path toward rebuilding the strength he’d lost after months of near immobility. What’s more, he was determined to fix the mistakes that had led him really close to the operating room.
“There was no other option. I was never going back to that,” Heaney says of his ordeal. So he joined The Movement Minneapolis, a strength training gym just a quick drive away from his home. The Movement Minneapolis uses an intuitive training approach that is structured around 1-hour group strength training classes. Workouts are intentionally programmed months in advance, but members have a ton of leeway in tailoring the sessions to fit their individual needs and capabilities. This personalized approach was especially beneficial for Heaney who, at least in the beginning, couldn’t do many of the exercises other participants were doing.
During the first few months, Heaney worked closely with personal trainer Mark Schneider. They connected before every class so Schneider could get a sense of how Heaney was progressing, and the two continued to touch base over the course of the hour. Schneider took into account any aches, pains or mobility issues Heaney was experiencing and programmed specific exercises to help him rebuild his mobility and foundational strength.
“We continually built on the movements Adam was able to do—in the ranges he was both comfortable and stable in—to slowly push his mental and physical limits,” Schneider says. “Before he realized it, he had more pain-free range with higher resistance than he could ever have imagined having.”
For Heaney, who was recovering from injury, having one trainer as a point of contact was key to success because he didn’t have to retell his story multiple times and could continue his forward movement without delay. His progress kept him motivated enough to show up three or four times a week. Watching the other members was also motivating, says Heaney. “I would see people moving these impressive weights, and I thought, ‘I want to be able to do that.’”
With his trainer’s help, Heaney inched closer and closer toward joining the rest of the group. “Every day when I woke up, I could tell [the pain] was a little less horrible,” he says. After just a few months of consistent, thoughtful effort, the pain was gone. Soon, Heaney began picking up kettlebells and barbells alongside the other members—and with greater ease than in the days before his injury.
Heaney is amazed to think of how far he’s come in just 1 year. He recalls how even the most mundane task—like putting on or taking off his shoes—was once a frustrating, painful ordeal. Today he’s learning new skills and enjoying the community of the gym. “I’ll be doing kettlebell swings, and I’ll say to Mark, ‘Hey, remember when I couldn’t even do these?!’” he laughs.
Now that the pain is a not-so-distant memory, Heaney’s goal is overall strength. “I want to be stronger than I’ve ever been,” he says.
Take-home transformation tips:
- Build programs with an intuitive, flexible design.
- Integrate small-group training with hands-on assessment
and one-on-one attention.
- Cultivate a safe community for all fitness levels and abilities.
The Yo-Yo Diet Train’s Last Stop: Catherine Wygal
Weight loss was a lifelong struggle for Catherine Wygal in Sherman Oaks, California. She’d tried the Atkins Diet®, Weight Watchers®, intense exercise regimens, diet pills and countless 30-day programs. Even when she managed to lose weight, it came right back once the program was over. At her heaviest, she weighed in at 300 pounds. In 2012, she worked with a personal trainer for 3 months. She remembers those as the most miserable fitness months of her life.
The diet and exercise program the trainer provided was strict and unsustainable. He outlined every detail of Wygal’s food and activity, down to the number of almonds she could eat for breakfast. “I was angry and hungry for 3 months straight and only lost about 7 pounds to show for it,” she says. Eventually, she used a pulled muscle as an excuse to stop working with him. “Nothing about what he did addressed my relationship with food, nor did it address the ways I actually enjoyed moving,” Wygal says. “It was a regimen that I resented more with each session. I truly thought of it as punishing myself for years of bad behavior.”
At 41, Wygal hit her breaking point. She was tired and depressed and would make up any excuse to avoid social events. “I wanted someone to take over,” she recalls. “I felt totally empty.” Wygal knew she had to do something radically different. No more 30-day diets or all-or-nothing exercise programs—she had to change her mindset.
In need of inspiration, she searched for weight loss podcasts and found Half Size Me™, a weekly podcast that features real-life weight loss success stories. It struck a chord. Hearing everyday people describe their weight loss journeys resonated with Wygal, unlike the extreme before-and-after accounts she read in popular magazines. She began to question all the weight loss “rules”—like not eating in the evening—that she’d been carrying with her for years.
Listening to those stories on the podcast led Wygal to examine her life. “I realized how many excuses I made about my own journey and how many stories I made up for myself,” she says. Inspired, she started making simple, sustainable changes instead of turning to another fad diet. She began counting calories but took care to avoid the pitfalls of deprivation and starvation. Instead of eating prepackaged 100-calorie packs or diet shakes, she filled up on leafy salads, steak, scrambled eggs with bacon, and ham-and-Swiss roll-ups. And she treated herself to ice cream every night.
To get a sense of her movement habits, Wygal bought a Fitbit® and started tracking her daily steps. On her very first day donning the device, she was surprised by how few steps she actually took. “I was getting about 1,400 steps a day just driving to work, sitting all day,” Wygal says. “I didn’t realize how inactive I was.” Once she knew, she decided to ditch her car whenever possible and walk everywhere: to take her daughter to school, to grab coffee or to buy milk at the convenience store. Pretty soon she was racking up 15,000 steps a day without much effort.
Wygal also joined the Half Size Me podcast Facebook community—a private, paid group that offers daily check-ins and weekly meetings, with subgroups to tackle members’ specific goals or problems. “That constant touchpoint of deep interaction with people at all stages, along with learning from, challenging and inspiring one another, is something I’ve never seen before,” she says.
In one food accountability group, members posted everything they ate for an entire day, from Listerine strips and bubblegum to hot-fudge sundaes. The group provided a safe space where members could open up about what they were eating without feeling judged, while the act of posting their meals led people to make eye-opening discoveries about their habits. “It made me realize I’d started saving up way too many calories for dessert at night,” Wygal says. “It really made me be honest about what I was doing.”
In 14 months of implementing lifestyle changes and receiving support from the Half Size Me Facebook community, Wygal has lost 97 pounds. But more importantly, she now enjoys the way she moves and eats. “It wasn’t until I started listening to Half Size Me that I realized that all this moving and eating needs to be about bringing pleasure and bounty to my life,” she says. “It’s about moving in ways that I love and that don’t feel like punishment.”
Take-home transformation tips:
- Learn more about mindset training, and use it in your program design.
- Set up a safe, life-affirming accountability system.
- Use technology to help motivate and reward clients.
The Wake-Up Call: Sharky Laguana
Sharky Laguana’s “aha!” moment came when he realized a milestone birthday was just around the corner. “I thought, ‘Oh my god. I’m going to be 40 soon. Now’s the time to get it together and start working out,’” he recalls. So he joined Sol Gym Personal Training Fitness Center, located just a few blocks from his home in San Francisco.
Everything went smoothly for a couple of months, until suddenly he noticed his legs were getting weaker and weaker. No amount of training seemed to make a difference. It turned out he had a rare tumor in his shoulder blade that was causing his cells to die. At one point, he could only get around with the aid of a walker and was even approaching paralysis. He underwent radiation therapy, but doctors warned him it could take 6–8 months to see any improvement.
And even with improvement, the disease might never go away completely. “They never talk about it being cured,” Laguana says. “In other words, it could be in remission for the rest of my life.”
After treatment, Laguana couldn’t drive or walk, but his desire to resume training at Sol Gym persisted, despite the obvious challenges of getting there and back. A solution presented itself when Mike Chaplin, one of the trainers, began working with Laguana in the comfort of his own home.
Most days, Laguana practiced balance exercises, like trying to lift his toes while standing and holding onto a wall. “If I was lying on my back, I couldn’t even lift my legs 10 degrees up from the bed. That’s how tight I was,” Laguana says. “Mike did an amazing job of coming up with a program that met me where I was.”
One of Laguana’s progress indicators was seeing how long he could stand in the shower without support from the wall. “For most of the time that I was sick it wasn’t more than a couple of seconds, and then one day it was 10 seconds,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow. Something’s happening!’” He continued to progress, and after about 7 or 8 months, he didn’t even need a cane anymore.
Eventually, Laguana was ready to return to the gym. Six years later, he’s still training 4 days a week. Though some exercises are still hard for him to do without modification, he’s often able to perform jumping and balance exercises that would have been impossible a few years ago.
“One of [Mike’s] key skills as a trainer is staying positive,” Laguana says. “I think you go through stuff like this and you have moments of anxiety and darkness. He was really good about keeping things from spiraling out of control and staying focused on positive stuff.”
Laguana trained exclusively with one trainer for several months, but Sol Gym clients typically work with a variety of trainers. “At first, new clients don’t like that idea,” says owner Lori Chaplin. “They end up loving it.” Depending on the initial goals, she may pair a client with one particular trainer to start. However, all trainers become familiar with the client, and once the introductory period is over, they take turns working with that individual.
As Laguana got to know the other trainers, he began to crave this rotation because each person contributed new conversations, viewpoints and areas of expertise. Unlike at some larger gyms, where trainers seldom collaborate, Sol Gym trainers make it a point to share their knowledge with one another. “Our facility is so small, and we all work together. You see what other trainers are doing and ask questions later,” Lori says.
As a result, the trainers keep things fresh and interesting for their clients—just one of the many reasons Laguana has been a consistent member for several years. “I have to credit the gym for a tremendous amount of my success and recovery,” he says. “I think my big victory this year was being able to stand up on a surfboard. I went snowboarding too, which is pretty amazing because I couldn’t even navigate a street curb in 2010.”
Take-home transformation tips:
- Refine your assessment skills, and design the program for the person in front of you.
- Adopt and reflect a positive, upbeat attitude, especially in the face of extreme difficulty, such as a life-altering injury.
- Turn your staff into team collaborators who are passionate about helping clients and members succeed.
Regaining Function: Cayce Cullinan
As Cayce Cullinan was growing up in Denver, fitness was always a priority. But after college he started working in construction, which led to constant travel and—ultimately—a decline in his physical health. “I really let myself go for a decade,” he says, adding that a back surgery in 2008 didn’t help motivate him to move again. “It was a pretty severe injury,” he says. “It took me a year to recover, and after that I was leery of doing anything too physical.” Eventually, however, enough was enough.
“I was really out of shape, and I got fed up and said, ‘Look, this is not who I am,’” Cullinan says. He wanted to reclaim the fit, active person he’d been as a youth—and with his 40th birthday on the horizon, he wanted to make sure he’d be able to keep up with his young son in the years to come. After eyeing the gym across the street for a couple of months, he finally went inside.
Not knowing what to expect, he was pleasantly surprised by what he found at e3 Fitness. “Their program was significantly different from anything I’d done before,” he says. “It’s been really easy for me to maintain my membership because they change workouts so frequently that you never get bored.”
At e3, clients work with a coach in a small-group setting (usually six people per class) and focus on functional training exercises. Most clients—Cullinan included—attend three classes per week, training upper body and lower body on separate days and finishing the week with a high-intensity, full-body workout. “First and foremost, our program is based on getting people to learn how to move their bodies,” explains Clint Gehde, e3 owner and coach. “Make them the machine, and then we can make the machine stronger.”
Thanks to the small class sizes, clients get individualized instruction on foundational strength movements and have plenty of opportunities to ask questions throughout the sessions. Coaches keep a close eye on their clients and make corrections if needed.
Cullinan appreciates the individual attention, recalling past experiences with personal trainers who he felt were not engaged or concerned about his well-being. Even when he’d worked with a trainer one-on-one, the trainer had not corrected form, explained which muscle groups a move was targeting, or provided insight into how the exercises could improve athletic performance. “I was just another client they were trying to crank through the mill,” says Cullinan.
Since joining the gym 2 years ago, Cullinan has lost 60 pounds, regained his athleticism and been able to dive back into endurance sports like skiing, which he describes as “mobile meditation.” Occasionally, he experiences back spasms related to his surgery, which can keep him out of the gym for a few days, but after these setbacks, e3 coaches help him to regain ground. In fact, Cullinan credits e3 with keeping injuries at bay. “They’ve given me a lot of corrective-type work to help with some of the stability, mobility and flexibility issues that contributed to my injury,” he says. “It’s getting me balanced out, so to speak.”
The gym has helped Cullinan navigate other areas of his fitness life as well. One major influence has been the club’s “chalk talks”—brief, daily educational sessions that cover various aspects of nutrition and recovery. Before warming up, class participants gather by the gym chalkboard, and coaches review the topic of the day, such as what and when to eat for recovery. After a while, Cullinan realized he was incorporating the information he learned during “chalk talks” without much effort.
The e3 approach is to show people how to lead a healthy lifestyle but give members the space to incorporate changes without the judgment or one-size-fits-all rigidity that’s long stigmatized the fitness industry, notes Gehde. “If you give people autonomy, if you give them the tools, it’s amazing what they can do,” he says.
Take-home transformation tips:
- Constantly evaluate and upgrade routines for maximum benefit.
- Use a high-level “coach approach” in small-group training.
- Empower clients to use corrective exercise strategies with you and at home.
The transformations described here are part and parcel of a bigger wellness movement that favors function over strict form, mindset over mindless box-checking, and personalized attention over rehearsed spiels. The strategies that helped these clients succeed are available to any fitness professional and can help to set the foundation for outstanding outcomes.