Your Clients Need a Coach, not a Diet

Kevin Mullins | 06 Jun 2017

Coaching lifestyle choices and nutrition is an integral part of what a fitness professional does. In addition to writing outstanding programs, providing honest feedback, and being an absolute professional in the gym, a trainer must also reach into the parts of a client’s life that don’t occur during the session.

Whether it is coaching someone to schedule more time for sleep, to drink more water throughout the day, or to adjust their dietary selections, a trainer must be ready to dive into the personal lives of their clients.

Every person you’ll ever train can utilize a solid nutritional cue, coaching point, or tactic from time-to-time. There will be a few that specialize in this aspect and only need you for physical prowess, but these individuals are scarce. Most people will come to you with a significant gap between their current position in life (in respect to health and fitness) and where they want to be (their goals). Many, if not all, of these individuals will have a tainted or misinformed attitude towards nutrition. Whether or not they possess a bias due to emotions, education, or some crazy blend of the two, these individuals need a coach, and not just a diet.

That’s where you come in.

Now, before we dive into how you can better coach your clients regarding nutrition and food selection, let’s pause to look at what is wrong with the current landscape. It is important to be able to identify and understand what is wrong prior to attempting reform your opinion. It is the classic adage: “you have to see a problem to know it’s a problem.”

What You Are Working with

The fitness industry as a whole is booming. Each year billions of dollars are invested by a population desperate to change their physical appearance, health, and overall wellness. A noble cause with a not so noble array of characters and salesmen. The mass market supplement industry is the most obvious example of the “do it now” mentality that traps everyone into thinking they’ll take a superhuman leap from where they are to fit. This pill and that shake all promise to shred body fat, build muscle, and beat Chuck Norris in a fight. They always stop short of making guarantees, but never miss the chance to allude to the most out-of-this-world progress.

Even training has made its share of sales-driven blunders. 30-day weight loss challenges, trainers promising epic transformations in 90 days, and the general mantra of “no pain, no gain” that permeates the mirrored walls and rubber floor of every gym leaves most people in the same place they started: unhappy and unfit.

Oh, and their pockets are out a few bucks too.

Nutrition its own monster. Not just for the way diets and cleanse programs promise outlandish results for relatively minor commitments, but how much these matters typically cause problems in a user’s body. Many elimination diets and cleanses strip the body of critical nutrients, crash hormone levels, and deplete the body of necessary fuels whilst pushing them to exercise harder – a recipe for disaster and not permanent weight loss.

Another failure of nutrition is the way foods have become viewed by fitness professionals and consumers alike. A food is seen as either “good” or “bad” based upon the nutritional content that rests within it. Instead of simply seeing food for what it is – information that exists outside of our body that will provide a certain number of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and potentially toxins – we see it as a motif of good and evil itself; as though judgement day will be centered around our nutritional choices instead of how we lived our lives.

This attitude is just plain wrong and it needs to be stopped in its tracks. Yes, I know it’s easy to stomp your feet into the ground and declare, “do not try and tell me that eating a donut is no different than eating a perfectly made salad,” or “our clients need accountability and I can’t let them think it’s OK to eat junk food instead of the healthy foods that build a great body.”

Let me explain before you close this post in disgust.

The Battle of Good Versus Evil

You aren’t wrong in thinking that a well-balanced meal with lean proteins, vegetables, healthy grains, starches, or fats is a great way to feed the body. You aren’t incorrect to think that sodas are wasted calories and snack foods are more likely to damage fitness progress than fuel it. Science supports it, all of it.

Whether it’s the artificial sweeteners in diet products, the preservatives in packaged goods, the added fats and sugars for flavor, or the chemical nature of foods that come from the center aisles, you are correct in saying that they aren’t the best thing to put into our bodies.

But it doesn’t always make them bad, and here is why. When we vilify food groups, or praise others, we are directly impacting our clients (or our own) relationship with food. When we create this spectrum of good and bad we are actively creating a system of punishment and reward. The good foods that aren’t as tasty are punishment for all those bad foods you rewarded yourself with over the weekend.

See the problem here?

You are either a demon or an angel in this scenario. You are either full of grace or fallen. There is no in between, no space for accepting our flaws as humans, or our strength as beings. There are just good and bad foods, good or bad choices, and good or bad bodies.

What if, instead of making foods out to be characters in a well-written but poorly directed movie, we choose to make them a part of the script; instead of giving these foods a voice and personality, full of judgement and power, we leave them as they are, as information to be taken and in, interpreted, and delivered back into the world by the real stars of the show, us.

Translation: Leave foods as what they are – chemical information – and guide our clients to try and consume better information more often than they take in bad.

It is important for you to re-wire your thinking prior to engaging in discussions with your clients. If you truly believe that all food could potentially have a place in a well-rounded diet, then you’ll be more genuine in your delivery of this information to your clients. Ultimately, your role as a coach is to give your clients the strength and tools necessary to help them climb the mountain themselves. No one can do it for them, but many can pull them back down – even you.

Now, let’s examine how and why you’ll coach your nutrition this way from now on. The information is useless if you have no context to use it in, just as food is useless to your body if you have no intentions of moving around and making use of it.

1. We all like a treat, and occasionally it’s great to have one.

Leveling with your clients with your own favorite foods helps make you more human to them which helps to breakdown the robo-trainer image that scares many away; moreover, explaining how you plan to enjoy your favorite foods without it damaging your progress or, more importantly, feeling guilty about it, will give your clients hope that they can actually do this without sacrificing everything that makes them happy.

Balancing the science that drives our metabolism, the rationale behind flexible dieting, and an open mind to why they may be psychologically or emotionally driven to a food will allow you to coach better.

2. You don’t have to dive head first into a diet.

Far too many coaches simply prescribe diets for the clients built around the foods that are good for the body. The intention is fine, but the execution is nothing more than a steaming pile...

Without considering how radical a change might be, you are certain to encounter resistance. Just as a child fights an early bedtime and a teenager resists an early rise – your clients will fight you (quietly and behind your back) by caving into cravings or rationalizing changes to themselves. Those that do follow a strict diet word-for-word might see results at first, but will soon hit that “screw this” threshold and begin exhibiting behaviors of quitting.

That’s the last goal any trainer should have.

Instead, you could coach a client that he or she can make one subtle change a week, such as adding in servings of vegetables, and still see success. It doesn’t need to be dramatic to be successful.

3. No judgement.

Clients will cheat and fail on their diet. It is inevitable. They’ll come to you as though you are the pastor in a confessional and look for your absolve their guilt. Don’t.

In fact, don’t even react, not at first. Simply meeting them with an “OK, that’s fine – do you feel like you needed those calories?” helps them immediately remember that food is information and not divine nor demonic.

As a session and emotion fades, coach them on making better choices or having strategies in place to avoid falling again but never punish them with more treadmill, more burpees, or two-a-days. Never take their next meal out of their mouth and never make them feel like they are anything less than human; especially if you are going out pounding cocktails on the weekend and slamming late night pizza just because you’re on the better end of the metabolic spectrum.

We are all human and we all make choices. The end.

Your job is to coach them to make a push for better information the next time they eat. You aren’t there to vilify them.


It is important to close out by saying that the entire industry of fitness, nutrition, and supplements is not inherently bad. Not everyone is digging through pockets looking to make cash by any means necessary. Yet, some are. That’s why you are here, reading articles and bettering yourself in your own time. You want to rise above the noise and cause real change.

Change starts when you and your clients embrace that the greatest feats never occur overnight, but rather through the consistent application of positive effort. You can show them in your actions and coach them with your words. Show them that food is nothing more that fuel and information, free of judgement and celebration. Coach them to seek the best possible information and fuel, and never let them feel as though they’ve failed.

You can be the star of the industry if you work hard. You can change lives everyday if you coach right. Now, just go and get it!

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Kevin Mullins

About the author: Kevin Mullins

Kevin Mullins, CSCS is a Tier 3+ coach for Equinox Sports Club in Washington D.C. A B.S. in Kinesiology from the University of Maryland serves as the scientific foundation for the following certifications - ISSA certified Personal Trainer, USAW Level 1 Sports Performance, and Precision Nutrition Level 1.

Kevin writes for multiple resources and has been featured by PTontheNet, the PTDC, Men's Health, Women's Health, the Washington Post, and local television outlets. He was selected as Men's Health Next Top Trainer in 2014 and 2015.

Kevin maintains his own site at

As a fitness professional, Kevin aims to listen and learn as much about a client in an effort to design training and nutrition programs that are personalized to someone's physiological, psychological, and sociological readiness. No two programs should look the same.

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