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Personal Training and the Power of Listening

By paying attention to the little things, this personal trainer knows exactly what her client needs at all times.

client: Christopher | personal trainer: Ginny Pietila, personal trainer and owner, MI Athletic lub | location: Mercer Island, Washington

Begin with a bond. Christopher felt nervous as he walked toward the front desk of the Mercer Island Athletic Club. He was determined to give working out another go, but highlighting his discomfort with his appearance felt uncomfortable. "It's never fun walking up to a perfect stranger and admitting that your body is a wreck and in need of some serious work."

Christopher had previously trained with enthusiastic fitness pros who had high expectations of him. "I felt overwhelmed, frustrated and ultimately disinterested," he says.

Ginny Pietila, the gym's owner and a personal trainer, noticed Christopher at the front desk and stopped to chat. "After a brief discussion, it was clear that we had already made a connection," Pietila recalls. "We settled on once-per-week 45-minute sessions, and Christopher would be responsible for adding a minimum of two additional workout sessions each week, either on his own or via a class."

Take it slow and steady. Pietila believes that highlighting realistic ambitions at the outset of a training program circumvents the disappointment newcomers might feel if changes aren't immediate. She took this tack with Christopher. At the time, he was transitioning from a high-stress healthcare executive management position to creating a startup company. Time, energy and confidence were at an all-time low. Recognizing his hectic schedule and burnout potential, Pietila emphasized that success would require time.

"Our plan was set for a steady, realistic, achievable year in which Christopher would turn his physical condition around," he says. "It was clear that he needed to 'dip his toe in the water' before physical activity [could become] a regular part of his lifestyle [again]." He responded well to the plan.

Be an active listener. Christopher recalls a time when he felt winded during a session, and Pietila encouraged him to take the child's pose: "I asked if this pose was somehow supposed to help me feel better—my belly was so big that it impeded my ability to take adequate breaths. We adapted and over time, as the weight came off, we were able to get there."

These kinds of interactions in which Pietila responded with adjustment instead of judgment eventually gave Christopher the level of comfort he needed to be honest about his physical state and the setbacks he had experienced, he says.

"Christopher can now tell me when he feels 'off' or sluggish," says Pietila. "I will dig into what transpired in his day or the previous days. I'll ask about his nutrition, hours spent at his desk, stress levels, sleep and so on. This will all determine how our workout plays out that day."

Foster a shift in mindset. Christopher has seen significant physical progress during the year since he first visited MIAC—he's had to have his entire wardrobe altered to fit his new body—but it's the mental shift that he's most proud of. He's learned that a goal like fitting into a pair of pants in a specified timeframe can activate unhealthy coping mechanisms if he falls short.

"If I focus on intrinsic motivators—like being conscious of how my body reacts and functions when I'm not coming off a sugar high, or noticing that I'm able to move with greater strength, energy and dexterity as a result of my workout routine—I am more likely to remain focused and grounded when stressful events happen and less likely to trigger old patterns."

Pietila could not be more pleased with her client. "I have been in this business for more than two decades, and every once in a while we are blessed to connect with special clients who challenge and change us as much as we are challenging and changing them," says the trainer. "Christopher is one of those clients. He inspires me to be a better trainer and to continue learning and inspiring. For that, I am eternally grateful."


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Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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