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5 Ways to Motivate Challenging Clients

Posted on April 4, 2018 4:00 PM
Personal Trainer

5 Ways to Motivate Challenging Clients

We’ve all had them. Whether it’s Chronically Late Carl, Bad Mood Bonnie or Needy Ned, every fitness professional has come across a client or student that takes more effort than the others. While it may seem logical to point the finger at Bonnie or Ned for making an hour-long session feel like 3, have you ever considered that you might be partly to blame for their questionable behavior?

As a coach, it’s up to you to set the stage for how your sessions and classes go and how your clients behave during them.

Here are five things you can do to turn a challenging client into a superstar success story.



Is there something that you’re doing to cause friction in the relationship?

To a certain extent, a fit pro must make certain adjustments to appeal to each person she serves. In the same way that a comedian needs to understand his audience so he can choose the jokes that will land best, a trainer should choose her motivation and language style to best appeal to the client.

For example, some clients appreciate a stern, drill sergeant-type of person, whereas another might prefer someone with a soft touch. Similarly, one client might appreciate that you use technical training jargon and another may not.

In the same way that you individualize your training programs to meet your client’s needs, it’s important to individualize how you behave and communicate with them to elicit the best results.



Clients aren’t always forthcoming about what’s on their mind and can be downright nervous to mention things that bother them, which may lead to feelings of frustration. A great coach gets to the root of why a client might be frustrated, disengaged or unenthusiastic during sessions.

Maybe they’re bored with, dislike or don’t understand the purpose of the exercises you ask them to do. Or, maybe something’s happening in their personal life that causes them to be reactive.

Asking open-ended questions before, during and after a workout might uncover details that you weren’t aware of and can help you redirect focus, if that’s what needs to happen.

For example, after asking some pointed questions at the beginning of the session, you might decide that your overly stressed client would benefit more from some stretching and foam rolling instead of the high-intensity training workout you had planned.

Also, asking questions shows them that you care and as that old Churchill saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until you show them how much you care.”



Yes, clients come to you as an expert to learn how to exercise safely and to guide them toward achieving their goals. Personal training and group exercise is often viewed as a relationship in which the trainer gives direction and the client follows. However, as humans, we need to feel some sort of control over life—even in a training setting.

Psychology research suggests that a way to encourage an individual’s enthusiasm for something is to give them some autonomy. That research emphasizes self-determination theory, which is considered a successful tool to improve performance, persistence and creativity.

Here are a few ways to give your client autonomy during the next training session:

* Allow her to select a song for your next playlist

* Let her decide if she’d rather do foam rolling or light stretching on a TRX for her cool down

* Give exercise options that align with the client’s goals and allow her to do the one she prefers



While autonomy is a source of intrinsic motivation, people also crave rules and stability—even if they suggest otherwise.

As the leader of a training session or class, it’s up to you to establish boundaries up front so your clients develop an immediate respect for what you do. When respect is part of the equation, the client will be more invested in the session and less likely to take advantage of you.

So, be firm about your cancellation and cell phone policies. Let your client know that you’re only available during certain hours and that you won’t return texts or calls outside those hours.

When all is said and done, whether you’re a group ex instructor or personal trainer, you have to remember that you’re running a business. You’ve put certain policies in place so that you can offer the same quality of service to everyone you work with. These rules teach your clients how to treat you and will minimize bad behavior.


We want our clients to fulfill each and every one of their goals and so we encourage them to shoot for the moon. But that might do a disservice to your training relationship and disappoint your client because the hard truth is that not everyone is a rocket ship.

Your client may want to run a 7-minute mile or drop a certain amount of weight before that wedding, but a lot can happen outside the few hours you spend with a client that can limit success potential.

The important thing here is to be honest about whether your client’s hopes and dreams align with reality. Help them to develop realistic expectations for what’s possible given the variables and roadblocks they might face. Your client will respect you for your honesty and won’t become your worst nightmare when they don’t drop 50 pounds in 3 weeks because they will have developed a reasonable set of expectations.


It’s easy to blame clients for their bad behaviors. But there are lots of things coaches can do to understand where those behaviors come from and how to circumvent them so you can motivate your clients to achieve their best potential.

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