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Become a Master Motivator

Use psychology and 10 master tools to electrify your client’s commitment to training.

I’m sure that, at some point, you’ve finished a session with a client and wondered, “What happened? He lost his focus,” or “He used to be so motivated,” or “What more could I have done to get him on board?”

Personal training seems as if it should be a simple and straightforward process. A client hires you to help her build a stronger, healthier, suppler body to improve her vitality and quality of life. You have the knowledge, experience, equipment and enthusiasm to direct and inspire her, so, with consistency and compliance as her guides, she should reach her goals in short order.

Unfortunately, this script is imperfect and often fails to deliver the storybook ending. The client does not reach her goals and, in fact, gives up after 5 months of training. Some clients are fired up from the start and sustain that motivation to achieve impressive and lasting results. However, for too many others, “Just Do It” remains nothing more than a static slogan on workout gear that never sees the light of day. What fouls up the program? Why is this scenario so commonplace in the fitness business?

People are complex and often contradictory in their actions. Clients say that they want to achieve one thing, yet they behave in ways that sabotage their efforts directly or subtly. Consequently, the ability to motivate is among the most prized yet least sought skills in a personal fitness trainer’s (PFT’s) tool kit. You may have an intuitive sense of how to motivate clients or, like me, may want to know more about what makes people tick. The trainers who most significantly affect their clients’ lives have either an innate or a studied understanding of human psychology. ‘

Motivation and the Mind

Social cognitive theory gives a central role to cognitive, vicarious, self-regulatory and self-reflective processes in human adaptation and change. In this view, people are not just reactive organisms shaped and driven by environmental forces or inner impulses; they are self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting and self-regulating. By using this theory as a framework for personal training and client motivation, you can help improve the client’s emotional state to correct his faulty self-beliefs and thinking habits (personal factors), improve his fitness/exercise skills and self-regulatory practices (behavior) and alter the home workout or facility structures that may undermine his success (environment).

Of course, although understanding and applying social cognitive theory with the client helps, no amount of psychological theory will help him if
he doesn’t know how to reflect on and understand his own behavior. The secret to guiding clients to better, more consistent choices is to teach and model self-reflective behaviors. Introspection facilitates more accurate assessment, interpretation and integration of information and experiences. Through self-reflection, people make sense of their experiences, explore their own cognitions and self-beliefs, engage in self-evaluation and alter their thinking and behavior as they relate to their lifestyle and health choices. You can help unlock this information by developing and using the skills of powerful questioning and careful listening. Questions cut to the heart of the motivation matter, and the client’s answers are clues that reveal his thinking process.

Why is this so important? Introspection enables the client to challenge and alter his self-beliefs intentionally. Self-reflection enables him to exercise a measure of control over his thoughts, feelings and actions. As Albert Bandura, global leader in psychology and behavioral sciences, says, “What people think, believe and feel affects how they behave” (Bandura 1986).

You may have heard that you can’t motivate others and that you can influence only what they are motivated to do. Bribes, special privileges and skilled coercion cannot make a client want to accomplish a goal without his internal agreement, which comes from convincing his head (“I know I should”) to agree with his heart (“I really want to”) about what’s important to do each day. Quite simply, motivating others requires affecting their self-beliefs.

More About

When describing a client’s success or failure, you may refer to her self-esteem as good, bad, strong or weak. A client with good self-esteem is consistent in her efforts and proactive in her choices. A client with poor self-esteem seems to struggle more, makes excuses for her failures and is generally more difficult to work with.

Although basically accurate, this assessment of how self-esteem affects individuals barely skims the surface of what goes on inside a client’s heart and mind when it comes to successful training and lifestyle changes. A solid grasp of the self-efficacy concept and social cognitive theory developed by Albert Bandura provides the missing pieces
to understanding motivation. His theories also strongly support the “coach approach” used by effective PFTs in their work with clients.

Bandura defines perceived self-efficacy as people’s beliefs about their ability to produce designated levels of performance that influence events affecting their lives (Bandura 1994). Self-efficacy beliefs also help determine how much effort people expend on an activity, how long they persevere when confronting obstacles and how resilient they are in adverse situations. The stronger the sense of efficacy, the greater the effort, persistence and resilience.

A person with a strong sense of efficacy approaches difficult tasks more as challenges to be mastered than as threats to be avoided. Your client must have confidence on two fronts to achieve and maintain her goals successfully. First, she must believe that she either can change and grow or can learn how to change and grow. Second, she must believe that her actions will influence her outcomes and that her efforts will lead directly
to her success.

Without these factors, commitment to achieving goals suffers. When your client shows weak commitment to achieving goals or exhibits low aspirations (despite great intentions), the underlying message to you is that she does not believe she can handle the tasks, exercises or expectations you’ve given her or that her efforts won’t really matter. While attempting to reach her health and fitness goals, she may have had years of failure and frustration resulting in a negative inner message that quickly drowns hope of future success. Your goal is to help her override these past defeatist attitudes.

Because beliefs and reality are seldom perfectly matched and individuals are typically guided by their beliefs when they engage the world (and you), it’s important that your clients know themselves. As the Roman poet Virgil said, “They are able who think they are able.”‘

Working through and around obstacles is the only way to success. A client with positive self-efficacy beliefs bounces back more quickly from failure or frustration and learns resilience with persistent effort and tastes of success. A client with low self-efficacy beliefs has a difficult time recommitting to goals or bouncing back from difficulties.

You must be an “efficacy builder” for the struggling client. Remind her of specific achievements and growth and provide more opportunities for success. Return to training basics and reduce
expectations until she can see that, however small, her steps are advancing her toward her goal. Also instill in your client the notion that she should measure her success not by comparison with others but in terms of self-improvement.

A Two-Part Harmony

Training success hinges on developing and designing a program not only safe and effective but also motivating. Motivating clients is a core competency of being a personal trainer. Whether a seasoned veteran or a novice trainer, you must recognize the necessity of being able
to motivate your client
to achieve
her goals.

There are two components to motivating clients: spurring them to action and sustaining that action. In the March 2002 issue of IDEA Personal Trainer (pp. 43-48), Don Walker, MBA, suggested a great way to get clients into action: “Find out what makes the client’s eyes light up. When you can understand that, you will have discovered a way to motivate her.”

Surprisingly, the impetus that gets your client in gear is often not the motivating factor that keeps her in action. Maintaining her intensity and persistence may be your greatest challenge. Your client may be motivated at the onset of training but may soon encounter an obstacle that detours her efforts and diminishes her results.

A good technique you can use to keep motivation high and prevent such lows is to use positive verbal reinforcement and teach your client to tune in to her own self-talk. Your verbal affirmation is the “snack food” or “side dishes” that she uses to fuel herself when she needs an extra push throughout the day. The “main meal” is her self-talk—the chatter inside her head that assesses her place in the world around her, affecting her mood and, ultimately, her behavior. As a master motivator, you can train her to turn up the volume on her self-talk and listen to the comments and language. The goal of this exercise is to weed out the damaging, defeating and limiting stories that she tells herself.

In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman suggests that we learn (or teach others) to capture automatic thoughts (which are often negative), evaluate them for accuracy and replace them with more optimistic thoughts (Seligman 1991). This is one of the most powerful life skills you can teach your client. (See examples in the 10 Master Tools throughout this article.)

In each session, motivate your
client toward her goals by
posing new challenges
that range from the basic (such as being prompt, staying hydrated and learning new exercises) to the complex (such as eating wisely, monitoring her self-talk and working out between sessions). In addition, rehearse the consequences and benefits of her choices; this helps her process her thinking and self-talk in a deeper way to begin to choose differently and with intention. While motivating her, encourage her to be courageous, self-nurturing, committed, realistic, hopeful and flexible so she learns to let go of past failures, frustrations, limitations in thinking and acting, negative self-talk and perfectionism and set her mind firmly on the path toward achieving her goal.

Master Motivator Requirements


One of my clients recently made a powerful statement regarding her fitness goals: “Self-discipline is born out of desire. I strongly desire to have a better attitude about exercise.” Physical well-being will help your client with just about everything in her life that she really wants to achieve. Therefore, her heartfelt desire about exercise is
the perfect starting point.

You need to know what your client wants and needs to feel healthy and whole. The “what” question is a great motivator. For example, you could ask, “If you were committed to your exercise program during the next quarter,
6 months or school year, what would you expect to happen? Consider the impact on your grades, relationships, work and overall health. What is your greatest desire?”

It’s also important to ask what will
be gained by achieving the goal: “Will you be healthier, happier, richer or more connected to people?” Once you know the rationale behind a client’s goals, you can provide specific feedback and reminders about the importance of tenacity. You can also help the client rethink or reassess her goals if they’re unrealistic.

Another smart “what” question to ask is “What do you think you’ll need to sacrifice to accomplish this health goal?” For example, your client may need ongoing encouragement and motivation to eat wisely once she focuses on becoming healthier. Reminding her
of this goal, the expected outcome and her willingness to adjust could help keep her
on track.

As you ask powerful questions, it is extremely important to be honest and confidential about the information that the client shares with you. A client’s lack of trust in you will make her guard her answers to your questions, limiting the impact of your advice and expertise.

“A key skill in working with clients to assess their goals is the ability to communicate the safety and confidentiality of your relationship,” says Beth Rothenberg, certified life and business development coach and 27-year PFT. “Without that spoken and unspoken agreement, you cannot help move the client to lasting results.”

Stephanie Wood, personal trainer and lifestyle/movement coach, recognizes that a big part of motivating clients is having them know themselves better. To help clients, she designed Your Active Personality Style, an assessment tool that she uses in training. She developed it after noticing that most people separate who they are from the types of exercises that they choose and love to do. This tool helps them connect their personalities to the types of exercises that they most enjoy. Simply taking the assessment test gives clients more focused information about themselves, which they can use to be more successful.

Another progressive and effective tool for helping clients learn more about themselves is the Personal Fitness System (PFS). PFS is designed to help trainers and clients assess what behavioral and motivational tendencies make the difference between success and failure in a fitness or wellness program. This tool provides points for discussion between trainer and client about observable behaviors and how they impact training success.


To be an authentic, positive and
motivating influence, you need to be patient, confident, creative and flexible. You need to be motivated by positive reasons for doing the work you do. Be wary of negative reasons such as fear or neediness driving your energy and style. Be compassionate and understanding of your client’s struggles yet consistent in your expectations of him. Remember that your client is ultimately responsible for his success or failure. You’ll know you’re taking on too much responsibility when you feel burdened, highly frustrated, angry or bored with your work or with clients.


A key for motivating and inspiring others is to be able to motivate yourself. Doing and living what you ask of your clients connect you
to the issues that they face. After all, personal trainers are human and can struggle with the same issues, although at different levels. Be honest and proactive about your own motivational struggles yet strive to live by a higher standard; your work and authenticity depend on it.


You need to be reminded that your goals are important, too. As you pour out your energy to motivate others, it’s important to have others who can fill you back up with encouraging words. Being a positive, supportive cheerleader for others is an integral part of your role, but similar support in your own life is powerful for you as well. Having a coach, mentor or team of supporters enables you to stay sharp and energized for your work.

In addition, you need great tools. You’re obviously familiar with the
physical tools of the trade (such as weights, bands, cable equipment, stability balls and boards), but you also need the two other types of tools that motivate, support and encourage clients: progress measurement tools
and interpersonal tools.

Motivating measurement tools include checklists, assessment and progress cards, benchmark sheets, tracking software, informative Web sites and cards that celebrate clients
and their special life events. Interpersonal motivational tools, such as coaching skills and techniques, are unique and require a different type of training and thought process.

Gail Parmer is a certified personal trainer and professional personal and business coach who uses such tools. “The most important skill I’ve developed in the past 5 years is listening attentively, like a coach,” she says.
“I listen at a deeper level to what clients are saying. Often, it’s not
the words they say but the meaning behind their words that allows me
to question or direct them in a more proactive, focused way. I have clients who do strictly hands-on personal training and those who combine training time and separate life-coaching sessions. Those who combine the work have improved 10 times more.” Parmer explains that she listens for a client’s level of self-efficacy beliefs and then adjusts her style and recommendations to what she recognizes that the client needs.

The Bottom Line

Self-esteem is really considered a component of self-concept, although many authors use the terms interchangeably. Self-esteem generally refers to how we feel about or value ourselves. Familiarity with these concepts is integral to understanding motivation, because “there is a great deal of research which shows that the self-concept is, perhaps, the basis for all motivated behavior” (Franken 1994).

Reflection, choice and outcome review are the ways to motivate clients for the short and long terms. To motivate your client, you must have an impact on variables affecting his self-esteem. Help him understand himself better by raising his awareness about what he says and does. No “therapy” is involved: Self-change (which your client desires when he hires you) is not something willed but something driven by the process of self-reflection. This is the premise behind the THINK, CHOOSE, WIN model that I use to coach individuals to make healthier, wiser choices in every area
of their lives.

As a professional motivator of others, you have the opportunity to enlighten your client about his self-sabotaging or -supporting behaviors and comments. You can also influence your client to pursue and accomplish his physical goals, launching a domino effect of accomplishment in other areas of his life. To have the chance to help other people develop not only their heart
and leg muscles but also their courage “muscles” is a privilege indeed!

1. MASTER TOOL: Ask Powerful Questions

Questions can be thought-provoking and open a door for your client to look into his heart and mind to discover what dreams and talents he has ignored or hidden. Powerful questions can cause the client to pause; to reflect; and even to make unusual internal shifts in his life perspectives or beliefs about himself, his circumstances or others. They give him the opportunity to explore more deeply what he wants to create, adjust, develop or pursue in his life. His answers can provide unique insights that you can use to craft his program and inspire his commitment. Using positive motivation intrinsically connected to your client’s goals and passions for life and health enables him to see himself and his skills to accomplish what he wants in a different and lasting way.

You frequently see clients become “stuck.” To propel such a client into action, try these powerful questions. All of them begin with “when,” “whom,” “what” or “how.” “Why” is not used, because such questions tend to raise defenses and rationalizations:

  • When did you notice that you felt stuck?
  • What benefits do you get out of remaining stuck? (Clients may look insulted or confused at this question. They may say, “Well, nothing.” but you can challenge that by saying, “You must get something. Otherwise, you would change it. Wouldn’t you agree?”)
  • What do you need to do differently to stay with the program we’ve designed for you?
  • What three actions can you take this week to help yourself move forward?
  • Whom can you call the next time you start feeling stuck?
  • How can you guard against being or remaining stuck?
  • How can I support you?
2. MASTER TOOL: Be Silent

Remaining silent, especially after asking a powerful question, gives the client the opportunity to reflect and respond, which often leads to powerful insights. These revelations are especially powerful because your client makes the connection herself and “owns” the awareness. A client won’t argue with her own data!

It can be tempting to ask a powerful question and follow up quickly with more, but slow down and ask one question at a time. Don’t contemplate or rehearse a response while the client is speaking; try listening and not responding. By remaining silent, you give your client the gift of deep and intentional listening, something that she may not receive anywhere else.

3. MASTER TOOL: Be Curious

When it is time to ask follow-up questions, curiosity is a great way to pinpoint the source of what’s happening without seeming judgmental or confrontational. Curious questions come across as light and nonthreatening. For example, instead of badgering your client, you can say, “I’m curious about something you just said. Could you tell me more about that?”

Suppose she just said that she doesn’t work out consistently, because she would feel guilty for taking time for herself and away from her kids. You could follow up by saying, “I’m just curious. Would you really feel ‘guilty’ for exercising? What is a better word for what you would feel?”

4. MASTER TOOL: Make Your Point With Stories

Stories capture our hearts and minds. Think of how well you remember a principle, an idea or a concept once it’s been communicated through a story. A story presents a moral as a gift. Stories provide enough distance between a personal situation and personal application to make a point more comfortable to digest. They also help people gain clarity in their hearts, and, with a moved heart and knowledgeable head, a deep and lasting change occurs.

Two concepts make powerful, lasting changes in people’s lives: personal responsibility and trust in one’s instincts. Sharing your own stories of taking responsibility and trusting your gut can help your client do the same. It can remind her of a time when she has or has not been responsible and the resulting impact.

5. MASTER TOOL: Provide Specific Examples

Specific examples can help you clarify a point effectively and concisely and give deeper meaning to a concept you’re trying to teach. Trainers have myriad opportunities to use this tool. For instance, you can provide a traveling client specific examples of how another client managed to continue his exercise program while on the road, or you can share how another new mom arranged to keep up her exercise program with her newborn. Be creative. Examples are all around you.

6. MASTER TOOL: Be Directive and Supportive

Your client pays you to support him with expert direction and advice about fitness. However, being supportive also includes not giving him immediate answers to his questions or challenges. Occasionally, you may find challenging his knowledge to be a more effective way to command his focus. Structure and ask powerful questions. (See “Master Tool #1” on page 30.) When he finds he already knows how to make the best choices for his training and motivation, he will be encouraged and inspired.

To make clearer, more proactive and better-educated decisions, your client must think for himself. Supporting the client by facilitating a self-discovery of answers to powerful questions is like teaching him how to fish instead of simply handing him the trout. Your challenge is to find the proper balance.

7. MASTER TOOL: Make Requests

Requests are great “shaker-uppers” best used when a client is stuck or lacks the self-confidence to try something that she would really like to do. For example, the next time your client goes on about how “guilty” or “selfish” she feels about carving out exercise time for herself, request that she look up those words in a dictionary or thesaurus and decide whether or not she is using the right word for her behavior or attitude. She will likely discover that guilt or selfishness is not what she feels. Request that she find a more appropriate word that you can continue to use as a code or trigger word in your training.

Of course, when you make a request, which must be a very specific action and have a time frame for completion, give your client the power to adjust or alter it.

8. MASTER TOOL: Create Challenges

You have a unique opportunity to challenge your client to try something that he fears he cannot do or has been unable or unwilling to change in his lifestyle or exercise choices. Develop realistic challenges for your client or have him describe a challenge that would be a comfortable “stretch” for him. Your job is to hold him accountable for it.

For example, you can say to him, “I challenge you to eat only foods that fuel you well, drink 6 to 10 glasses of water a day and exercise 5 days this week without exception. Are you up for the challenge?” He may then agree to the challenge or alter it to make it more realistic. Check in with him a week later to see how well he has risen to the challenge. If he has met the challenge, pose another. If he has not, encourage him to try again.

9. MASTER TOOL: Teach Through Analogies

Just as a picture can be worth 1,000 words, using an analogy or a simile can be like turning on a light in a dark room: What were once indistinct shadows become clear and tangible objects.

For instance, if you know that your client likes to garden, ask her to think of her cardio training as weeding: It takes effort, sweat, tools and time, but, without it, the “garden” that is your client’s body would lose its beauty and could even die prematurely. Such an analogy may serve to clarify your client’s objectives and motivate her into positive action.

10. MASTER TOOL: Tell the Truth

I believe that clients hire us not only to give them accurate and safe training information but also to tell them the truth. Truth ultimately empowers your client. Once you share a hard truth, your client can honestly evaluate his choices and direction.

Here is an example of a hard truth: “You know that exercise is good for you, and you like the idea of being fit. However, you’re not ready to commit, and that will sabotage any effort to make lasting changes. You first need to admit that, although you’d like exercise to be higher on your priority list, it’s not.” (This may also be a good place to ask a powerful question such as “What do you need to be more honest about your commitment and feelings about exercise?”)

Practical Motivation Tips for Your ClientTake Inspiration Home!
  1. Be Clear About What You Want. Be even clearer about why you want it. Without clarity, obstacles loom larger than your desire. With clarity, you’ll discover whether your motivation is negative or positive. If it’s negative, find a positive motivator to help you pursue your goal(s).
  2. Determine the Actions That Will Help You Reach Your Goals. Like goals, actions need to be specific and measurable. They must define what you will do, by when and with whom.
  3. Settle on the Attitudes That You Will Consciously Adopt Throughout the Process. Your attitudes will help you follow through on actions more than any other factor will. Language is important. Use empowering words such as “I will” instead of uncertain words such as “I’ll try,” which usually mean that you won’t.
  4. Find a support person who will tell you the truth, cheer you on and not be threatened by your success.

    5Celebrate small successes. People have a tendency to minimize the critical smaller successes in anticipation of the bigger goal. Be proud of every step you take along the way!

Success Signs

Here are some of the signs that you are positively motivating a client:

  • She shows consistent effort.
  • She is enthusiastic. However, understand that people share their enthusiasm in different ways. Some do it quietly; others do it boldly. If you learn to recognize how each of your clients shows enthusiasm, you’ll have a good handle on their energy and motivation.
  • She meets obstacles with creativity and tenacity. You’ll notice that your client is feistier about making workouts “work” and that her eating habits have changed.
  • She exhibits courage. She may attend a new class, set boundaries with family members or attempt more difficult strength training or stretching programs than in the past.
  • Both you and she see results! Having a system for sharing ongoing results with your client is important yet often overlooked once training is underway. If motivated intrinsically, she shows more patience for the process when results don’t happen immediately. Moreover, this resilience in the face of adversity and failure transfers into their areas of her life.
  • You get more referrals from clients positively influenced by you.
More about this topic

Kate Larsen, PCC, will present this material at the 2003 IDEA Personal Trainer International Summit® on February 16 from 12:45 PM to 2:00 PM. If you want to discuss your client motivation challenges, stop by to meet Kate or participate in the discussion. For more information about the Summit, contact www.IDEAfit.com or call (800) 999-4332, ext. 7, or (858) 535-8979, ext. 7.


  • Carlson, R., & Bailey, J. 1997. Slowing Down to the Speed of Life: How to Create a More Peaceful, Simpler Life From the Inside Out. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
  • Carson, R.D., & Rogers, N. 1986. Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Enjoying Yourself. New York: HarperPerennial.
  • Helmstetter, S. 1987. The Self-Talk Solution. New York: W. Morrow.
  • Helmstetter, S. 1990. What to Say When You Talk About Yourself. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Larsen, K. 2001. THINK, CHOOSE, WIN: The Fundamentals of Self-Coaching (audio cassette). Minneapolis: Forrester Audio Networx.
  • Seligman, M.E.P. 1991. Learned Optimism. New York: A.A. Knopf.
  • Ziglar, Z. 1994. Over the Top. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.



Bandura, A. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A. 1994. Self-efficacy. In. V.S. Ramachandran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press.
Franken, R.E. 1994. Human Motivation (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Seligman, M.E.P. 1991. Learned Optimism. New York: A.A. Knopf.


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Kate Larsen

Kate Larsen, MCC, NBC-HWC, BCC, is a professional certified coach, and serves as a faculty member, advisor and mentor coach for Wellcoaches Inc. Her work has appeared in Experience Life, Fitness, SHAPE, Self, Cosmopolitan, Prevention and other publications. She is also the author of Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters. Certification: ACE

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