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Training the 5 Types of Fitness Clients

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:

Physique Clients

  • They’re focused on aesthetics and want to maximize muscular
    development (they want bigger muscles).
  • They usually enjoy bodybuilding and prioritize their workouts and
    eating habits.
  • They tend to gauge success by how they look in the mirror (flexing)
    and by circumference measurements.

Performance Clients

  • 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
    either extreme.
  • 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

  • They’re usually recreational exercisers who want to lose extra body
    fat while minimizing muscle loss.
  • They may not necessarily enjoy exercise. Many are frustrated at their
    inability to stick with diets that are unrealistic over the long term.
  • They often measure success by psychological factors (such as how well
    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:

  • decreased blood pressure and lower risk of developing coronary heart
    disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer (HHS 2008)
  • preservation of bone mass and reduced risk of falling, particularly in
    older adults (Nelson et al. 2007)
  • improved mood in people with mild to moderate depression, and
    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].)
  • improved sleep patterns, which can help people stay more alert in the
    daytime and sleep better at night (Driver & Taylor 2000)
  • enhanced feelings of “energy,” well-being and quality of life (Puetz
    2006; Yau 2008; Conn, Halfdahl & Brown 2009)
  • stimulation of brain growth through the production and preservation of
    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)
  • delay of all-cause mortality (HHS 2008)
  • 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.

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