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!