Effective and successful personal trainers do more than merely structure challenging workouts for their clients.
They also have the interpersonal skills needed to foster and nurture rich, meaningful and beneficial client relationships.
Jason Szeili, an HFPA-certified personal trainer and founder of Sculpted Training, a hybrid training service based at the HFPA gym in Rivonia, explains that relationship building begins the moment you engage with a prospective new client.
“It’s vital to establish rapport in the initial client assessment and on-boarding phases as this creates the foundation from which to build a strong relationship with a new client and create a connection.”
Building trust and rapport
To promote this level of engagement, Jason believes it is vital to be open with new clients and make them feel comfortable.
“I always allow and encourage new clients to do most of the talking in our initial interactions. This ensures I can find out more about them, which can offer insights into their personalities, as well as their likes and dislikes.”
Jason acknowledges that it can be difficult for clients to open up about how they feel about their weight or health, but building trust in the relationship will foster this type of engagement.
“Finding common interests can go a long way in building rapport, even if they lie outside the gym. So don’t be afraid to ask more personal questions. The key is to read each situation and adjust your approach on an individualised basis based on the type of client you’re working with.”
Personalising your approach
The focus of these interactions should, of course, predominantly focus on the client’s exercise and dietary requirements.
“In addition to their goals and objectives, trainers should ask specific questions in a client questionnaire that reveal their exercise preferences. It’s important that clients enjoy their time in the gym, otherwise they’ll quickly lose interest.”
Uncovering the training modalities they like and dislike will help trainers better understand the client and also informs exercise prescription.
“It’s also worth finding out how they feel about the gym environment. This is another vital element to ensure training is engaging and enjoyable, as some clients may feel self-conscious in a public space. It’s obviously your job to explain why something they might not enjoy will be beneficial in the programme, and work to meet them halfway by finding alternatives.”
While weight training is a mainstay in body transformation plans, a client may also enjoy exercising outdoors, which a trainer should accommodate to meet their preferences and boost adherence.
“Every client is different, so it pays to discover how each client feels about the type of training you propose, in addition to what they expect from their sessions and what they want to get out of the workouts.”
Setting the training tone
After laying the groundwork, there are additional focus areas to work on as you implement the training plan.
“It’s important for the trainer to establish the ground rules before the first session to set expectations, and to then lead by example. It should go without saying that trainers must always be professional and maintain basic standards, like never arriving late, and not sitting on their phone during a session.”
Trainers must also create a plan that works and is realistic within the context of a client’s lifestyle.
Jason also believes that it is important to teach the client why you advocate something during your sessions.
“Knowledge is power. If they understand why they must eat five meals a day or increase their protein intake, they’ll be more likely to follow your advice. When they understand the ‘why’, they also become more invested in the process.”
You’ll also need to find your feet in how you engage with individual clients between sessions to keep building that relationship and maintain the hands-on approach that ensures adherence to the plan, which is what ultimately yields results.
“In this regard, you need to find what works best for the client because everyone is different. So be flexible and accommodating, within reason.”
Dealing with potential issues
Even if everything goes to plan at this stage of the relationship, be prepared to troubleshoot issues down the line.
Cancelling or missing sessions can often become a problem. “When this happens, understand that life happens. However, it’s important to find the balance between accommodating a client’s life commitments and not tolerating abuse. They must respect your time and the fact that you’re running a business, so act in a manner that communicates this diplomatically and implement strict policies that address these situations so there is no confusion.”
If problems persist, Jason says it is best to address issues early on, before they become habits. “Just do so in a professional manner, and never make a client feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.”
Identifying and addressing trainer-client issues early on can also keep them from festering or escalating to the point where trainers lose business or gain a bad reputation.
It’s common for potential issues to arise with regard to client progress. “If they don’t see results quick enough, they can grow frustrated. It is vital to set expectations upfront to manage this, but it is also important to keep in mind that there will always be results from consistent training. While they might not align with a client’s primary goal, trainers should highlight other wins like increased strength or fitness if they aren’t losing weight.”
Trainers should, therefore, closely track progress and benchmark gains. “And be proactive by shifting your approach if your aren’t realising the results clients are after.”
This will help to renew a client’s motivation, particularly when they start to see the progress they want. “It’s also vital to apply other tools and approaches when motivation levels drop.”
An effective approach that has worked for Jason is shifting clients from one-on-one to group sessions. “It adds a social element to training and the group dynamic introduces a degree of peer pressure into the equation, which increases adherence and promotes greater accountability.”
The money factor
Another common flash point in client-trainer relationships often relates to money. “Chasing people for payment is never a pleasant experience, especially as it’s hard to press clients for payment without knowing their situation.”
That’s why Jason makes sure new clients can afford the sessions before signing up. But, financial issues are unpredictable and are likely to arise.
“When they do, it’s best to tackle them head on – don’t beat around the bush. Try to find a solution that works for both parties. Don’t be inflexible, but don’t let clients abuse your willingness to accommodate a different payment solution.”
In these and other situations, Jason says it’s easy to get emotional. “No matter the scenario, it’s important to take emotions out of the equation. Be empathetic to their perspective, but be honest and upfront if you believe the relationship isn’t going to work. If the relationship ends, help them find someone else who can help them. And don’t take it personally. A breakdown in a client-trainer relationship is not always a reflection on your skill or ability as a trainer. Sometimes it’s just the chemistry that doesn’t work.”
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.