Most fitness professionals tailor their programming
to five kinds of clients, who have five distinct training goals.
Reviewing the client types and their specific workout needs is helpful because it
illustrates a divergence between what most trainers like to do and what
most clients actually want. If we’re honest with ourselves as an industry,
it’s probably true that we most readily identify with athletes,
bodybuilders and people trying to lose weight, while our clients are most
likely regular folks who want to be more fit and healthy.
To become more successful, we have to focus more on what the majority of our clients
want. To help you sharpen your focus, this article describes
- the five main types of clients and their key characteristics;
- why fitness professionals have to wear three hats to address the diverse expectations
of these clients; and
- practical programming strategies for each type of
client (see the sidebar “Training Strategies for the Five Kinds of
Five Categories of Training Clients
Most fitness professionals’ clients
fit into one of five categories based on why they’re exercising:
physique, performance, physique + performance hybrid, fat loss, and
general fitness and health. (This, of course, leaves out special
populations such as people struggling with obesity or those going
through postrehabilitation training.)
These are the primary characteristics of each type of client:
They’re focused on aesthetics and want to maximize muscular
development (they want bigger muscles).
They usually enjoy bodybuilding and prioritize their workouts and
They tend to gauge success by how they look in the mirror (flexing)
and by circumference measurements.
They’re focused on athletics and are looking to maximize their
physical ability (power, strength, conditioning, etc.) to succeed
in/on a given field, court or combat sport.
They usually prioritize training and take it seriously, but they don’t
always prioritize nutrition and lifestyle.
They tend to rate success by improvements from their baseline
performance in strength-and-conditioning tests.
Physique + Performance Hybrid Clients
They’re usually recreational athletes or exercise enthusiasts who want
to improve their physique and general athleticism without training to
They usually prioritize training and take it seriously, but not all of
them prioritize nutrition and lifestyle.
They tend to gauge success by changes in their physical appearance
and/or by improvements from their baseline performance in
strength-and-conditioning tests and fitness challenges.
Fat Loss Clients
fat while minimizing muscle loss.
inability to stick with diets that are unrealistic over the long term.
they do at improving eating behaviors and exercising more often) as
well as physical factors (such as how they fit into their clothes, how
they look in the mirror, and whether they’ve lost weight and body fat).
General Fitness and Health Clients
They’re usually recreational exercisers who are looking for overall
health and fitness without specifically focusing on physique,
performance or fat loss.
Many enjoy exercise but say they “don’t want to think” when they’re
working out. They just want a great workout experience that challenges
them but doesn’t hurt them.
Although they often assert that they want to lose some fat, they may
not be interested in modifying their eating habits. Some may say they
have no interest in changing their eating habits and are exercising as
a weight management strategy to offset all the foods they love to eat.
They often gauge success by how much they enjoy each workout, how they
feel at the end of the workout, and the fact that they have completed
a certain number of workouts per week.
The Fitness Professional’s Three Hats
Clients’ multiple motivations
for seeking out fitness professionals oblige us to wear three hats:
The coach. Physique and performance clients view the fitness
professional as a coach who guides them through each aspect of their
training and competition preparation.
The trainer. Physique +
performance hybrid and fat loss clients view the fitness pro as
someone who designs a training program for their specific needs and
helps them adapt to it.
- The adult “PE teacher.” General fitness and
health clients view the fitness professional as a physical education
teacher for adults. They want to be told what to do for a workout each
time they visit.
Reaching the Largest Fitness Audience
It’s interesting to note
that while general health and fitness clients are the least serious
about the way they exercise, they are the most common type of
exercisers and the ones most likely to be working with fitness
The “three-hats” analogy explains why general fitness
and health clients are so different from the other client types—they
want a fitness pro who reminds them of their PE teacher from their
school days. They don’t want a coach to help them win a championship,
and they’re not seeking a training and diet regimen for losing 25
pounds. If we pretend they are just like all the rest of our clients,
we’ll end up with an unhappy majority who won’t stick around because
they’ll keep looking until they find someone who better understands
Many fitness professionals refuse to acknowledge this reality.
Some have adopted a training philosophy (that is, bias) and treat all
clients alike, based on this perspective. They’re the fitness
professionals who remain frustrated, wondering why their clients
“don’t get it” or “don’t care” as much as they do.
It’s usually not
that these clients don’t care; it’s that they don’t care about what
the fitness professionals want them to care about. These fitness pros
just “don’t get it.”
Bringing General Fitness Training Back to Fitness Professionals
essential to take a realistic, client-centered approach to programming
versus an elitist, biased approach where every client has to fit into
the fitness professional’s favored training philosophy.
While it’s true that fitness pros often help general health and fitness clients
morph into fat loss, physique, performance or hybrid clients, it’s
important for fitness professionals to understand that regular
exercise is very productive in and of itself. Too many fitness
professionals seem to feel they’re wasting their time unless they’re
training people for specific goals like physique or performance.
There is much documented evidence supporting the physical and mental health
benefits of regular physical activity. For the sake of general health
and fitness clients, it’s worthwhile to remember these benefits:
disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer (HHS 2008)
older adults (Nelson et al. 2007)
potential for exercise to play a supporting role in treating severe
depression (Researchers have found that exercise’s effects lasted
longer than those of antidepressants, and that physical exercise
reduced anxiety by causing remodeling in the brains of study
participants who worked out. This evidence suggests that active people
may be less susceptible than sedentary people to certain undesirable
aspects of stress and anxiety [Miller 2011; Schoenfeld et al. 2013].)
daytime and sleep better at night (Driver & Taylor 2000)
2006; Yau 2008; Conn, Halfdahl & Brown 2009)
new brain cells and neurons, a process that enhances learning and
memory and is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and of
developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Van Praag et al. 1999;
Laurin et al. 2001; Friedland et al. 2001)
These studies spell out why general fitness and health clients shouldn’t
be looked down on as people who are “satisfied with being mediocre.” And
yet I’ve heard many fitness professionals describe them this way, simply
because these clients aren’t interested in being gym rats who’re
concerned with their deadlift performance or with building a wider back.
Simply looking to stay active and improve one’s overall fitness and
health while also enjoying exercise is a perfectly worthwhile goal. The
client-centered fitness professional is happy to help facilitate this by
wearing the PE-teacher-for-adults hat.
Conn, V.S., Hafdahl, A.R., & Brown, L.M. 2009. Meta-analysis of quality-of-life outcomes from physical activity interventions. Nursing Research, 58 (3), 175-83.
Driver, H.S., & Taylor, S.R. 2000. Exercise and sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 4 (4), 387-402. ÔÇ¿
Friedland, R.P., et al. 2001. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have reduced activities in midlife compared with healthy control-group members. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 98 (6), 3440-45.
HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). 2008. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008. Accessed Jul. 7, 2015. www.health.gov/paguidelines/report/pdf/CommitteeReport.pdf.
Laurin, D., et al. 2001. Physical activity and risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in elderly persons. Archives of Neurology, 58 (3), 498-504.
Miller, M.C. 2011. Understanding Depression. Harvard Medical School. Accessed Jul. 7, 2015. www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/understanding-depression.
Nelson, M.E., et al. 2007. Physical activity and public health in older adults: Recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (8), 1435-45.
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Schoenfeld, T.J., et al. 2013. Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (18), 7770-77. ÔÇ¿
Tumminello, N. 2014. Strength Training for Fat Loss. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Van Praag, H., et al. 1999. Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 96 (23), 13427-431.
Yau, M.K. 2008. Tai chi exercise and the improvement of health and well-being in older adults. Medicine and Sport Science, 52, 155-65.