Keep Your Clients Coming Back: Five Key Ingredients to a Client-Centered Approach for Exercise Professionals

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Keep Your Clients Coming Back: Five Key Ingredients to a Client-Centered Approach for Exercise Professionals

Mindy Hartman Mayol, Ph.D., ACSM EP |  Dec. 15, 2021

Keep your clients coming backHave an ACSM certification? Feel confident in performing health and fitness assessments and prescribing the soundest of exercise prescriptions for your clients? These are a must but these alone won’t keep clients sticking around for the long haul. It is your approach that you take with clients at each and every session that will.

1. Connection. Connection. Connection.

Building a level of trust and rapport with your client as they embark on this journey with you is vital to the relationship forming and sticking. Clients want to be listened to and understood and will continue to expect this from you during every session. Demonstrating empathy toward your client will help you to best connect with them for the long-term and will leave your clients feeling taken care of and satisfied. In addition, practicing mindfulness (being present in the moment) when working with your clients is an assured way of connecting with them and meeting them where they currently are.

2. Use Effective Connection Skills.

An active approach to demonstrating empathy and connecting with your clients works best when you choose more open-ended questions, use reflective listening statements and affirmations, and are cognizant of your non-verbal/body language.

  • Open-ended questions consist of starting your question words like “how, what, why, who, tell me about, describe to me…” versus close-ended questions like “did you, have you, are you, can you…” This gives the client the platform to tell you their story and allows for more information to come your way so you can better understand their perspective.
  • Reflective listening statements are not questions but are statements back to the client that paraphrases what you just thought you heard them tell you. These are great connectors!
  • Affirmations are statements intended to give your client a confidence boost and encouragement after they have told us information that is moving in the direction of positive change (or even when they tell you good news).
  • Non-verbal/body language includes making eye contact, sitting/standing squarely to the client with an open posture, nodding and smiling.

3. Get to Know Your What Motivates Your Client.

It’s a good idea to use these connection skills to learn what is motivating your client to begin exercising or to keep exercising and why they want to work with a personal trainer. A person who is intrinsically motivated continues to engage in an activity over time because it is what they WANT to do. Listen for the “I want to…” statements as these will be the indicators for the longest lasting form of motivation to continue their exercise pursuits.

4. Provide a Successful Experience for Your Client.

Once you've established the client's WANTS, it is important that you have the client create a vision statement and collaborate with them to set both long-term (outcome) goals and short-term (weekly task) goals. A vision statement is more general in nature and says what the client wants overall. Long-term and short-term goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, action-based, realistic, timely and self-determined (based upon what they WANT). These goals then work toward upholding the client’s vision statement. Too often, what the client wants hasn’t been identified, goals do not match the WANTS and there is not a collaboration of setting goals. This can lead to unsuccessful experiences for your client. Another important feature in setting goals is to ask your clients if they are ready, willing and able for each of the goals that you help create with them. If one or all of these three personal rulers is off, this is a good time to discuss with your client why they do not feel ready, willing or able regarding that goal. This could signal that your client is unsure or has mixed emotions (ambivalence) about their goals. 

5. What to Do when a Client is Hesitant or Not Progressing.

If you find your client is ambivalent about the exercise plans you co-created with them or perhaps they are not progressing with their exercise goals, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and determine what is causing their hesitancy. Use your connection skills to allow your client to open up to you and describe what is halting their exercise plans or actions. It could be a number of things like confusion, uncertainty or a life event. You shouldn't assume what the source is. Once you and your client have had this discussion, you will need to reformulate your collaborative plan. Revising long-term and/or short-term goals may be in order. Having a better understanding of their perceived supports and barriers will help both you and your client identify cues and triggers. Talking with your client about strategies for possible setbacks related to them reaching their goals is also helpful.

Related links:
Free, downloadable handout | How to Select the Right Personal Trainer
Book | ACSM's Resources for the Personal Trainer
Book | Coaching Psychology Manual

Mindy Mayol
Mindy Hartman Mayol, Ph.D., ACSM EP
, is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Indianapolis. She is a member of ACSM’s ad hoc Certification-Related Content Advisory Committee. Her teaching and scholarly interests include sport, exercise and health behavior, motivation, coaching psychology and multi-dimensional wellness. She also published an eBook focusing on multi-dimensional wellness for emerging adults.