Cheatsheet: How to deal with various kinds of difficult fitness clients

Managing difficult personal training clients

Have you ever had a client who just wasn’t making any progress even though their workout plan was foolproof? How about a client who comes up with unrealistic fitness goals?

All PTs have to deal with these scenarios at one point or another. The good news is that there are several strategies to tackle each of these problems. 

This cheatsheet runs through different client scenarios, from those who are motivated to those who are just plain annoying, and how to handle each of them.

They aren’t willing to put in the work

This is one of the more frustrating scenarios you can experience. You’ve created a plan that you know works, but your client simply won’t put in the effort. Or they may go AWOL without rescheduling, later show up unmotivated, and give a bunch of other excuses. It gets even worse with online clients because you have a limited number of ways to reach them. 

Here are some effective ways to motivate your clients to commit and get them on track.

1. Recognize that you need a new approach

It’s tempting to stick to your current approach and keep pushing it. But something obviously isn’t working, and the first step is to figure out what that is. 

It’s tempting to stick to your current approach and keep pushing it. But something obviously isn’t working, and the first step is to figure out what that is. Click To Tweet

Forget about all the things they were supposed to do, or all the time that’s has been wasted. The most important thing is to understand that a new next plan is necessary and to find a way to make it happen.

2. Set up baby steps

Asking open ended questions like the ones under “They aren’t getting results” below can help get to the root of the problem.

But it’s also important to create simple next steps that your client can follow with a minimal time commitment. These can give them the confidence that they’ve achieved a task, and hopefully, help you build up to more effective routines.

Some great baby steps include having them send you pictures of their next meal, going for a short walk, or trying a 15-minute exercise routine.

3. Create a strategy for when clients become unmotivated

Every PT will have to deal with unmotivated clients sooner or later. Creating an action plan can prepare you for the inevitable. You’ll be able to respond more quickly, and will even recognize the warning signs as they appear when you already have a plan worked out.

One smart way to do this is to create a general template, and then structure it for each client you get. This may involve getting the client’s schedule to find the perfect time to send a message or setting up an easier routine in case they get unmotivated.

4. Don’t work with friends and family

Several PTs have a policy that they don’t work with friends and family simply because they are harder to instruct.

The relationship you have could get in the way, making it harder for them to listen to you and actually take your advice. Besides getting them motivated, you may also have to deploy some “tough love” that won’t go down well with people you’re close with.

They have unrealistic expectations

Imagine that you’ve just signed a new client. Like many pros, you want to have a conversation about their expectations and availability for the training before setting up any kind of plan.

But then, your client pulls out a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and says he wants to look exactly like that. Worse still, he can only train twice a week and doesn’t like the taste of protein powder or brown rice.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime

This may be an extreme example, but you get the idea. 

Managing these expectations can be quite tricky. Handle it wrong and your client may leave you believing someone else can. 

But don’t worry because you’re not the first PT to experience this. Here are three strategies to handle this problem.

1. Understand and empathize with your client

The last thing you want to do is dismiss your client’s ideal or flat out tell them they are wrong. A better approach is to understand why they want to look like Arnold.

Are they concerned about looking as good as Instagram models? Or are they simply looking to achieve their peak aesthetics?

Once you understand their needs, you’ll know whether to re-educate them, create a tailored plan, or refer them to a specialist trainer.

2. Explain how much work it will take

At the end of the day, your job is to help your client achieve their goals. If they want to be as big as a bodybuilder explain how much work they’ll need to put in.

The chances are that they aren’t willing to go the distance, and will be very happy with a physique that they can maintain and actually enjoy.

Try not to scare them, however. The goal is to present the evidence, based on your knowledge and experience. 

On the other hand, if your client decides to chase their initial objective, it’s still your job to provide support and structure.

3. Discuss the unrealistic side of social media

Social media can give people unrealistic expectations about fitness. The effect is even worse on people who know nothing about fitness. Many of the pictures they see are cropped, airbrushed, and edited to perfection. 

Worse still, some influencers use PEDs and chalk their results to nothing but “hard work and dedication.”

Help your clients understand that no one looks like that 24/7. It may also help to show him what a realistic physique looks like. It’s not glamorous but the truth rarely is.

They aren’t making any objective progress

This is one of the most frustrating client problems you can face. As a trainer, your job is to provide structure, guidance, and feedback. But what happens when your client claims to be following her routine isn’t making any progress?

There are several ways you can approach this problem.

1. Be sure you have the right metrics

metrics for personal fitness client
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Imagine that your client wants to lose fat and get in better shape. So you give her some exercises and a strict diet plan to follow. But the number on the scale doesn’t change month-to-month, so you assume she’s not following the diet plan.

But the problem could be body composition. If your client is doing simultaneous strength training, they might be building muscle at the same rate as losing fat. 

Consider getting other metrics like their agility, energy levels, or even height to hip ratio.

2. Consider that they are getting other benefits

The temptation is strong to drop her as a client since she’s not willing to work. But remember that people rarely pay for a service that doesn’t offer them value. If your client isn’t moving closer to her goal but still keeps showing up, consider that she’s enjoying other benefits from your coaching.

If your client isn’t moving closer to her goal but still keeps showing up, consider that she’s enjoying other benefits from your coaching. Click To Tweet

Your client may be getting better at activities of daily living, getting better sleep, or enjoying more self-confidence.

One way to get clarity is to have an open-ended conversation about other benefits she might be enjoying. Try to look for results that aren’t visible on a scale.

3. Have your client maintain a journal

A personal journal can help you both get to the root of the problem. This would be invaluable if your client experiences a period of progress and relapse.

The relapses may be due to overwhelming life events like difficult relationships and trouble with work. Your client may not quickly draw these connections. But when you look at it retrospectively from a journal, you can find a pattern.

They want to try a new routine from YouTube

New routine personal trainer
Image by Taco Fleur from Pixabay

Has your client ever walked up to you and said “I found this routine on YouTube where…” After reviewing the video, you discovered that the exercises that look cool but don’t address their specific fitness goals. 

Even worse, the exercises may be based on the wrong exercise principles. So how do you deal with it?

1. Explain why the exercise is bad for them

As a certified trainer, you know how the body works, the kind of exercises that are suitable for various goals, and more importantly, what not to do.

Help your client understand this by giving them as much detail as possible. You may need to use technical terms just so they understand that you know what you’re saying. You can also recommend some research papers from reputable websites like Elsevier that they can explore.

This is one of the reasons why I advise PTs to have a personal blog section or at least follow industry blogs like Verywellfit that publish research-based information.

2. Share some client experiences

Sharing experiences you’ve had with past clients may help make your case. Talk about how they followed routines based on the principles you’ve explained, and the results they got. If you have pictures to show their progress and transformation, even better.

They aren’t getting results

There are many ways to explain this problem. You could say they are still adapting to the exercise, or that they need more adherence to their diet plan.

But the truth is, you won’t know until you start asking questions and doing some investigation. Every client is different so there probably isn’t one single culprit for everyone. Use these simple steps to identify the problem.

Every client is different and you’ll need a specialized approach to deal with each one’s core fitness challenges. Click To Tweet

1. Ask them open-ended  questions

You can begin by asking them what results if any, that they are getting. You can also try some of these other questions:

  • How satisfied are you with our results so far?
  • How close would you say we were to your current goals?
  • What do you think has held you back the most?

As your client answers these questions, you can begin to narrow down your search and find other threads to pull.

2. Identify and address each problem

The slow progress could be because your client isn’t getting enough sleep or they aren’t eating as healthily as they should. Your goal should be to find the root of each problem. 

Make a list of everything you find and develop effective and practical strategies for dealing with each problem. It’s best to start with factors that have the biggest impact and then go from there. 

For example, imagine that the problem is that your client isn’t getting enough sleep and they are sneaking in a late-night high-calorie snack. The solution could be helping yotwur client rearrange their tasks so they have more time in the day.

You can also recommend lower-calorie snacks, or help them drop the habit of eating late at night.

The bottom line

As a personal trainer, you’re bound to run into many more scenarios with difficult clients. And unfortunately, there’s no singular way to deal with them all. However, it helps to first understand where your clients are coming from, to plan a response.

To make things a little easier, I’ve compiled all this information into a downloadable cheat sheet that you can keep handy. All the info you need is on a sintwgle page and you can develop a strategy with a simple glance. Click the button below to download your copy for free.

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