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Personal Training or Lifestyle Fitness Coaching

How do you know which approach is best for your clients?

Do you have clients who have difficulty exercising on their own or whose behavior patterns continually interfere with the successful attainment of their goals—in the gym and elsewhere? Have some clients expressed an interest in using physical activity for personal development or to achieve life balance? For these and other clients, personal fitness training may not be enough. A fitness subspecialty—lifestyle fitness coaching—needs to be considered.

Lifestyle fitness coaches (LFCs) encourage clients to use training and sports to build behavioral skills for use at work, at home or in their social lives. This specialty is particularly relevant to fitness professionals because it is founded on expertise in sports and exercise science. People trained as LFCs develop communication competencies parallel to those of professionals trained as more generic life coaches, but LFCs choose to specialize in issues that arise from, or can be related to, the world of sports, fitness and health.

The Evolution of Lifestyle Fitness Coaching

The fitness industry workscape—once dominated by part-time employees and occasional instructors—is increasingly staffed by long-term, full-time, dedicated professionals whose credentials likely include degrees in the sport and health sciences. In the late 20th century, personal fitness trainers (PFTs) frequently relied on a one-dimensional approach to fitness, believing that biomechanical knowledge and technical expertise were sufficient for helping clients adopt more active lifestyles. But over time, as PFTs regularly encountered diverse client agendas, they realized that clients often required far more than instruction and technical support for maintaining exercise commitments. Investigating exercise issues led to exploring emotional needs and/or nutrition concerns and sometimes revealed unsupportive lifestyle patterns, addictive behaviors, and family and personal challenges that needed to be addressed before clients could experience success. Yet before the development of life coaching models, PFTs may have lacked the necessary communication skills and models for intervening in these domains.

The advent of life coaching provided PFTs with access to methods for working with clients on these other agendas. Then the question became: Which works better for which clients—personal training, life coaching or a blend of the two? Making the right decision requires an understanding of how each model works and what each can do for clients.

Distinguishing Coaching and Training Models

Clients who hire LFCs rather than PFTs are likely to encounter different work methods and communication techniques. For one thing, LFCs tend to identify relationship building and communication as their principal domains of expertise. They may attempt to elicit client stories, strategize, and provide motivational and supportive messaging. Though some coaching schools recommend giving advice (Coach U 2005), LFCs generally prefer to encourage clients to come up with their own answers by using powerful questions that challenge and confront client self- perceptions and self-limiting beliefs (Strachan 2001; Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl 1998). Texts on life coaching typically indicate that it is based on the following elements (Cantwell & Rothenberg 2000; Coach U 2005; Martin 2001; Neenan & Dryden 2002; Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl 1998):

  • a process of inquiry and personal discovery to help clients develop awareness and a sense of responsibility
  • identification of realistic goals
  • a strong focus on action
  • strategies, structures, feedback and support to “forward the action”

Personal training may have some similar elements, but the scope of work is likely to be narrower (Roberts 1996). PFTs typically rely on instructions and technical information and have a more hands-on approach, guiding clients through exercises and training processes. They are also more likely to provide directives, information and advice (Gavin 2005). Though communication methods that build rapport and trust are important, trainers are more likely to define their roles in relation to expertise in biomechanical knowledge and physical training techniques. (For a more complete view of the two different models, see “Lifestyle Fitness Coaching and Personal Fitness Training: Similarities and Differences” on page 49.)

Knowing that coaches and trainers rely on different skill sets and ways of connecting with clients sets the stage for answering our central question of which model works best for which clients. What needs to be added to this discussion is an understanding of the client.

Self-Efficacy: The Key to Decision Making

Clients have diverse needs, styles and agendas. A key concept in recognizing a client’s agenda is self-efficacy, or the ability to successfully engage in desired tasks and achieve valued outcomes through one’s actions (Bandura 1997). Self-efficacy is normally identified in relation to specific goals and behaviors; it is not a generic concept that applies to all domains of life. For instance, being able to undertake a weight loss program and achieve one’s goal represents a high level of self-efficacy in relation to this task and associated behaviors.

Some clients may feel they have landed on Mars when they enter a modern-day fitness center; others will feel right at home. One client may know all about the biomechanics of weight training and program design, while another may be clueless. One may be physically unable to lift weights, while another can do so with ease. All these examples refer to clients’ physical self-efficacy, or self-efficacy in relation to the physical acts required for successful training.

From an entirely different perspective, we find clients who are cognitively and emotionally unable to successfully design, implement and maintain behaviors related to desired changes. One client may want to lose weight, but find himself repeatedly sabotaging his own efforts. Another client who is highly successful as long as a trainer assists her may be unable to adhere to a plan of action on her own. These examples are different faces of what can be termed cognitive/emotional self-efficacy.

Looking at self-efficacy from these different angles enables you to begin to identify clients who have the necessary physical abilities to achieve their goals but lack the cognitive and emotional competencies to successfully manage the necessary transitions of a change process.

Imagine a client named Dorothy who has trained off and on for years, has hired the best trainers to support her, and knows exactly which exercises to do for specific results. But she periodically drops her exercise program and begins to gain weight—until she becomes so disgusted with herself that she starts exercising again. The dynamics pertinent to Dorothy’s case are most likely related to cognitive and emotional self-efficacy rather than physical self-efficacy.

On the other end of the scale is George, who hasn’t been inside a gym for decades. George has always defined himself as a self-starter—someone who follows through on anything he commits to. He joins a fitness club, trains incessantly for 1 week, as if to make up for his lapse, and ends up in the sports medicine clinic with an injury. For someone like George, who tends to follow through on his plans, the problem may have less to do with cognitive and emotional self-efficacy than with physical self-efficacy.

Transitional Decision Matrix

Using the concept of self-efficacy as a basis, we created and tested a tool to help identify what clients need and whether coaching skills or personal training skills are most appropriate (Gavin & Mcbrearty 2003). Because clients who hire either a coach or a trainer are most often pursuing change, we named this tool the “Transitional Decision Matrix.”

The decision matrix relies on two client dimensions: behavioral competency and transitional competency.

Behavioral Competency. Does the client have the behavioral capacity and skills to achieve her goals? If she wants to do weight training, does she know how to use weights? Is she aware of training principles? Is she able to exercise with proper form and respect her own physical capacities? Can she walk into a gym and competently train for an hour or more? If the answer to each question is yes, we would say she is behaviorally skilled in relation to this specific agenda. (Competency is defined in goal-related behavioral terms, rather than as a broad-based description of the person’s athletic abilities.)

Transitional Competency. Is the client capable of successfully managing all the cognitive and emotional challenges that may arise in a transition of the nature he is contemplating? Is he skilled at dissecting issues and understanding his own needs in a period of transition? Can he make choices that will serve his best interests in the long run? Can he overcome obstacles that may occur, and plan for relapse prevention? Can he think creatively to avoid mental traps and habitual ways of perceiving? Is he able to motivate himself through all the phases of a change process? Is he able to generate different types of support—interpersonal and material—to keep him on his path? If the answer to all these questions is yes, this client is likely to have ample skills for managing the transition he is considering.

Using the Matrix

Once you are familiar with a client’s competencies and can see where he falls in the Transitional Decision Matrix, you can make the best decision about the appropriate model or models to use with that client.

Quadrant 1: Skilled Transitional & Skilled Behavioral Competencies/Optional Coaching. Imagine a yoga instructor who decides that his personal and health agendas will be best served by deepening his yoga practice. This instructor has reliably managed many self-designed change processes in the past. In one sense, striving for this new goal may not represent a transition as much as a continuation of an established pattern. If this is the case, it’s likely that neither coach nor trainer will be needed. But imagine that this instructor is pursuing a significant shift in how he relates to his bodily and personal needs. In this case, coaching may prove invaluable in helping him clarify his goals, strategies and processes.

Other, more likely, scenarios for this quadrant involve clients who have been training for years and are exploring new options for learning in the world of fitness, or repatterning lifestyle behaviors through sports and exercise. Coaching may not be required, but it could be quite beneficial.

Quadrant 2: Skilled Transitional & Unskilled Behavioral Competencies/Training. When clients express little doubt about their abilities to engage in action directed toward behavior change—and when their self-evaluations are accurate—the question becomes one of behavioral competency. Do these clients have the knowledge and skills to do what is required to reach their goals? Picture a woman who doesn’t know how to swim but wants to complete a triathlon, or a man who has been inactive for decades but now wants to reduce stress through regular training. Assuming these potential clients can readily adhere to training programs and manage the myriad adjustments that accompany these planned shifts in life patterns, they would probably benefit most from working with a personal trainer.

Quadrant 3: Unskilled Transitional & Skilled Behavioral Competencies/Coaching. Most individuals are capable of a 15-minute daily walk without putting themselves at risk, yet even this small amount of regular physical activity may seem unattainable for sedentary individuals. Other individuals may be exceptionally knowledgeable and gifted athletes yet continually struggle to embrace physical activity in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable. LFCs can help behaviorally skilled clients manage the social and emotional agendas accompanying transitions so they connect to sports and fitness in ways that generate transformations of mind, body and spirit.

Quadrant 4: Unskilled Transitional & Unskilled Behavioral Competencies/Coaching & Training. This last quadrant includes individuals who need to develop the behavioral skills necessary to engage in physical activity and who also require support for all the challenges of change. Perhaps the majority of clients who wish to integrate meaningful physical activity into their lives but have been inactive for years fall into this category. Neither technical instruction nor emotional guidance alone will prove sufficient for these clients to reach their goals—both types of support are necessary.

What Clients Tell Us

Clients who have worked with LFCs describe self-empowering life transitions. They speak of feeling guided rather than directed, motivated rather than pushed, and supported rather than dependent. However, as the Transitional Decision Matrix suggests, not all clients have agendas appropriate for coaching. In a recent pilot study, we examined client reactions to short-term (three-session) coaching or training. Twenty-eight inactive women were randomly assigned to lifestyle fitness coaching, personal training or a no-treatment control group. In interviews with coaching clients, we were initially perplexed to learn that while most subjects profited, a few gained little from the experience. One person complained of having to come up with her own ideas for activities instead of “being told what to do.” Another client enjoyed the experience but still wanted someone to tell her how she should exercise and what she should eat to lose weight. Our matrix offers easy explanations for these seemingly critical comments. These clients’ dissatisfactions likely represent either poor alignment of client agendas with professional assistance or unclear client expectations about how coaching functions.

In interviews with personal training clients, responses were less variable. Clients liked learning how to use weight machines and how to do different exercises. Though experiences were generally positive, comments such as the following were typical: “I really enjoyed the training. . . . I just wish I could continue so I would be sure to exercise.” Such comments are easily interpreted when we consider quadrant 4 of the Transitional Decision Matrix. Although these clients needed to develop behavioral competencies and were pleased with personal training in this regard, they also needed support for managing a life transition.

Our study and other experiences with clients point to the necessity of determining exactly what clients need and what expectations they have of professionals they plan to hire. When clients’ behavioral competencies are lacking, providing training guidance alone may not lead to their developing self-sufficiency and sustained commitment. This is probably one of the strongest arguments for using coaching models within health fitness settings.

What Coaches Tell Us

Professionals we have trained as LFCs have typically had a base of fitness instruction and personal training. One of the most challenging learning hurdles they faced was making the transition from a “telling” or instructional relationship with clients to one based on dialogue and partnership. These professionals often reported how hard it was to avoid solving clients’ issues by offering advice and opinions. They realized their comfort zone of technical expertise was ever so tempting to fall back on, especially when clients were struggling to discover their own answers. The urge to help by giving instructions and advice was strong, yet these professionals generally acknowledged that “helping” in this way would only short-circuit their clients’ paths to growth and self-reliance. The newly trained LFCs fully acknowledged the positive face of mastering a coaching model—namely, clients who achieved sustainable progress, learned how to solve problems for themselves and felt increasingly empowered when responsibility was placed in their hands.

The Future

Lifestyle fitness coaching is not intended to be a substitute for personal training. The two are distinct yet complementary processes. The field of coaching is young, and set paths have not yet been established. How coaches can optimally work with clients in diverse venues is continually being explored. Many clients are just beginning to discover the different types of help available. This learning process will take time. At the same time, coaches are making strides to clarify and communicate what their styles are and what clients can expect from them in terms of both work processes and outcomes.

Whether you are a personal trainer, a lifestyle coach or both, using the Transitional Decision Matrix can help you find the best fit for your clients so they can make the changes they desire.

Transitional Decision Matrix

Behavioral CompetencyTransitional CompetencySkilledUnskilledQuadrant 1

Optional CoachingQuadrant 2

TrainingSkilledQuadrant 3

CoachingQuadrant 4

Coaching & TrainingUnskilled

Case Analyses

Apply the Traditional Decision Matrix in the following four scenarios. In each case, would the client in question benefit most from coaching, training or a combined approach?

1. Bill, a 34-Year-Old Obese Man

Bill joined a fitness center 6 months ago and has reliably trained a minimum of three times a week. Although he says he enjoys training, he simply isn’t reaching his goals of weight loss and body composition. He spends most of his time weight training but also spends some time on the cardio machines, usually exhausting himself within minutes of starting.

Analysis: Quadrant 2. Bill is committed; he trains reliably even though he isn’t achieving the desired results. What he seems to be missing is technical support and information about training methods and programs. He is likely to benefit most from a personal trainer.

2. Jenny, a 50-Year-Old Regular Exerciser

Jenny has trained regularly for most of her adult years. She has generally stuck to the same pattern in her training and reports that she is slowly losing motivation. Her needs and values are shifting, and she says she needs to figure out what’s best for her at this juncture in life.

Analysis: Quadrant 1. Jenny knows how to exercise but would probably benefit from discussions that could help her link her evolving life directions and purposes to things she does when she trains. Coaching might be a way for Jenny to structure support for her personal journey. Whether this will lead to a more specific training agenda remains to be determined.

3. Henry, a 31-Year-Old Procrastinator

Henry’s goals seem to continually elude him. At his age, he knows it’s time to finish his doctoral dissertation, yet he keeps putting off the required research. He would love to be in a nurturing relationship but complains he doesn’t have the time to find a partner. His training has been sporadic for years, and consequently he feels dissatisfied with the results he achieves.

Analysis: Quadrant 3. Henry experiences discomforting gaps between his present reality and desired life. While he seems to have the requisite abilities, he is ineffective in translating dreams into action. A coach could help him strategize, plan and implement effective programs of action to improve the quality of his life. The pattern he demonstrates in his training parallels patterns in other life domains, suggesting that behavior changes in this domain may readily transfer to other life pursuits.

4. Irene, a 45-Year-Old Exercise Novice

Irene is new to exercise. She has raised her family while holding down a full-time job as a nurse. She knows she has neglected her physical health, but as a caregiver her tendency has always been to attend to others’ needs before her own. She doesn’t know what to do to improve her physical condition.

Analysis: Quadrant 4. Irene probably needs both coaching and training. She doesn’t know what to do in the gym, but if all the help she receives is geared to training, she may lapse into her old patterns of helping others before taking care of her own needs. A coach can assist her in staying on track in pursuing her own dreams and making her life a priority.

Lifestyle Fitness Coaching and Personal Fitness Training: Similarities and Differences

Lifestyle Fitness CoachingPersonal Fitness Training

Underlying Model

  • This nontraditional model of helping relies on dialogue, self-exploration, holistic thinking, creativity, personal growth and development, and is closely aligned with the fields of counseling, personal growth and self-discovery.
  • Data gathering goes beyond fitness assessment to include extensive information about client needs, interests, lifestyle, behavioral patterns and personalities.
  • Coach and client are generally considered partners in the process of change.

  • Dialoguing may take place face-to-face in office settings, or through telephone contact and/or Internet messaging.
  • Prerequisite skills include exercise sciences, training and program planning.
  • Communication training is related to life coaching processes, relationship building, and models of personal change and transition.

  • Dialoguing.
  • Questioning and active listening.
  • Challenging.
  • Reframing.
  • Strategizing.
  • Providing feedback.
  • Goal setting and action planning.
  • Motivating and rewarding.

  • Physical activity serves broadly based life goals.
  • This traditional health fitness paradigm relies on giving directives, instruction and advice.
  • Trainers are viewed as the experts, and clients are deemed dependent on trainers’ knowledge and technical skill.

  • Training is performed in homes, gyms and outdoor recreation centers.

  • Prerequisite skills include exercise sciences, training and program planning.
  • Expertise in specialty areas pertinent to clients’ physical needs (e.g., cardiac rehabilitation, sport-specific training) is optional.

  • Giving instructions and advice.
  • Providing feedback.
  • Goal setting and action planning.
  • Motivating and rewarding.

  • Exercise programming is typically targeted at achieving specific body change outcomes. LocationSkill BaseDistinguishing Communication MethodsGoals


International Coach Federation, www .coachfederation.org/abouticf/index.asp

Lifestyle Coaching Institute, www.lifestyle coaching.ca/home.html


Gavin, J. 2005. Lifestyle Fitness Coaching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. 1998. Co-active Coaching. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.


Bandura, A. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Bohm, D., & Nichol, L. 1996. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge.
Cantwell, S., & Rothenberg, B. 2000. The benefits of lifestyle coaching. IDEA Personal Trainer, 11 (7), 24–35.
Coach U. 2005. Coach U’s Essential Coaching Tools. Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Gavin, J. 2005. Lifestyle Fitness Coaching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Gavin, J., & Mcbrearty, M. 2003. Lifestyle Fitness Coaching Training Guide. Montreal: private printing.
Martin, C. 2001. The Life Coaching Handbook. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House.
Neenan, M., & Dryden, W. 2002. Life Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach. East Sussex, England: Brunner-Routledge.
Roberts, S.O. (Ed.) 1996. The Business of Personal Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Strachan, D. 2001. Questions That Work. Ottawa: ST Press.
Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. 1998. Co-active Coaching. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
Yankelovich, D. 1999. The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Jim Gavin, PhD

Jim Gavin, PhD, is a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University and has been involved in the practice of counseling and health promotion over the past 35 years.

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