As professional personal trainers, we focus on achieving results with our clients. But before we can really do so, we need to define what we mean by “results.” The first article in this two-part series examined this question, examining the argument that results have to be about more than physical achievement, that they have to include a new approach to the client’s lifestyle and the role of physical activity in it. This will allow the client to make the changes that will lead to a healthier life.
To do this, the personal trainer can create an interpersonal space with the client that allows him to be the decision maker and makes the fitness professional a companion in change. Rollnick focussed on the two factors that affect the motivation to change behaviour: importance (of practicing a physical activity) and confidence (in practicing the activity).
In the first article, we saw how to use this interpersonal space to help the client become aware of the importance of physical activity. I would now like to offer some tools and skills for exploring the second facet of this process of awareness building: confidence.
Building Confidence to Create Change
Under the umbrella of confidence, we can include the client’s ability to implement physical activity into his daily routine. It thus relates to the time the individual can invest: both the frequency and the duration of the activity. This should be addressed in relation to the client’s environmental, familial and professional situation in order to allow the client to build awareness of the true “efforts” that he will have to make.
Here is an example of a conversation that can take place with a client, tackling the issue of confidence in practicing the activity:
You: How much time will you invest in your training?
Client: Oh, I can do two to three sessions per week. I think that will be a good start.
You: You are telling me two to three sessions per week. Under what circumstances would this be more likely to be two than three?
Client: Well, sometimes I have to work late at the office, especially during the budget analysis meetings. Those take place twice a month, at the beginning of the month when we are launching strategies and then five days before we close the books to see what actions we need to take to achieve our objectives.
You: So, the weeks that you will go two times to the gym instead of three are at the beginning and the end of the month?
Client: That’s right.
You: What are you going to stop doing or decrease doing in your job to open up the time to exercise regularly?
Client : I can’t really stop doing anything, but I will have to get into the habit of stopping work on the days I will exercise, because I have so many meetings during the day that I end up doing my administrative work in the evening, which my wife really doesn’t like. [laughs]
You: And how do you plan to do that?
Client: I’ll put my workout sessions into my electronic agenda with a reminder, just like I do for my work.
When we observe how the personal trainer led this interview, we note that he actually says very few words, only asking and then rewording certain questions. It is the client who leads the creation of the action plan without receiving any actual advice.
Dealing with Resistance
In the above case, everything moves along quite smoothly. However, sometimes the client resists changing his behaviour. We can use the same methodology to address this resistance and to accompany the client to overcome it:
You: You are telling me two to three sessions per week. Under what circumstances would this be more likely to be two than three?
Client: Actually, with everything I have to do every day, it is really going to be a battle!!! I will really have to find the time [said nervously].
You: I am hearing that you are not very confident that you will be able to free up periods of time in order to do your training because of your daily responsibilities. If you decide now to be more active and to go to the gym regularly for training sessions, how confident are you that you will do it? Tell me on a scale of one to 10, where one means not at all confident and 10 means very confident.
Client: I would say about five.
It would be very natural at this point for the personal trainer to then carry on the argument: “You know that to see results you will have to at least do the physical activity…” or “And how will you take care of training regularly?”
Instead, let’s see how we can get the client back on track:
You: You are telling me that you are only somewhat confident that you can free up time to exercise. Tell me, why did you say five and not one?
Client: Because I know that it is for my own good and that I need to do it. I’m tired of being like I am right now and feeling out of breath every time I do something with my children. I absolutely have to find a way to organise my time.
You: So, you can increase your confidence by organising your time. Are there any other reasons you rated your confidence at five and not one?
Client: Yes, I also think that I should really make some time to exercise.
You: I suggest that we look together at some ways you could organise your sessions into your very busy schedule. Tell me some ideas, without thinking if they are “possible” or “impossible.”
This includes both the “why so high” technique and brainstorming. By practicing the “why so high” technique, the client is reminded of some good reasons to change, which will lead to a “change” discussion, as described by Miller and Rollnick in their book “Motivational Interviewing.” In regards to brainstorming, in a case like the one described, I personally prefer to add the phrase “without thinking if they are ‘possible’ or ‘impossible.’” This technique takes the client out of dead-end thinking mired in the problem and frees his creativity to come up with more options and to organise his thoughts. It can also be useful to help him by saying: “Some people I’ve already spoken with, who have found themselves in the same situation as you, have found this option useful” or even, “Can you think of anything that has worked for other people in your environment who find themselves with a schedule as busy as yours?”
Let the client choose between the options cited: “Of all the options you have come up with, which ones could work for you?” In this way, you are again encouraging the client himself to come up with the elements for his action plan.
Difficulty Coming to the Gym Alone
We have all met clients who are reluctant to train alone. How can we help these clients stay on track?
I always invite my clients to do their sessions alone, with an action plan that we have developed together. Whatever formula the client has chosen, it always assumes that the client will train alone. This strategy makes it possible to put into action the process of client education and autonomy. In the first article, I called this the “educational experience at the behavioural level.” This process also includes the objectives to be achieved and which have been established together.
Client: I’ve already skipped my personal training twice. It’s hard to get away from work when I don’t have an appointment set up.
You: I understand that you find it difficult to come to the gym when you don’t have an appointment with me.
Client: Yes, I always prioritize my work, and I always have something to do. Over the past two weeks, when we had our two scheduled appointments, it was easier for me to come because I had blocked it in my agenda.
You: So, when you have an appointment with me, you block it in your agenda, and it is easier for you to come to the gym.
Client: That’s right. It’s harder for me to cancel it because I am meeting someone.
You: If nothing changes in this regard, what could be the consequences on your objectives at the end of three months?
Client: I certainly won’t advance. I know that it is important to come to the gym regularly, and I really want to improve my physical condition and to feel better. I feel good when I work out regularly, that’s for sure.
You: What options could you put in place to have an appointment at the gym, even when you don’t have an appointment with me?
Client: I could start by writing it into my agenda, because I don’t do that right now. I could also inform my secretary that that time period is blocked, like I do when I have an appointment with you.
You: Can you think of any other possibilities?
Client: I could set up a meeting with someone, the way I do when I am going to play tennis.
You: Certainly. There are some other solutions people in the same situation as you have come up with. May I tell you a few?
Client: Yes, please!
You: Some of them sign up for group classes and give their names at the reception like we do. Another option could be to change your workout to a time of day that is generally less busy for you or when you are less likely to get “caught up” in something. Do any of the ideas I’ve given sound possible for you?
Client: Maybe the group class could help me, and I think lunchtime would be a good idea. Could we look together to see what course would suit me best?
The fitness professional has again played his role as companion in the client’s cognitive-behavioural process without imposing anything on him.
Describe, Don’t Prescribe
Replacing instruction with description is another form of language.
As personal trainers, we give information to the client on the relationship between physical activity and the client’s objectives. This information is essential, and during the first interview, for example, it is a very important moment. Usually, this is when the professional begins a long monologue on the grand physiological principles of sport activity and their relationship with the goal sought. As an example, let’s consider weight loss:
“To burn fat, you need oxygen. That’s why we will make sure to increase your VO² Max, which is your body’s ability to use oxygen. Cardiovascular training will help you in this matter, and after a condition test, I will set up a program for you with the heart rate zone that you need to respect in order to optimise fat burning.
Then, you must understand that the place you use this oxygen is in your muscles. That’s why it is important to build muscle, which will also increase your metabolism when you are at rest. Even when you are sleeping, you will burn more fat, which is important for the future. There, as well, I will work with you to optimize and personalize your program.”
Even though the words will vary from person to person, isn’t this the common language for many professionals?
To encourage the continued development of the client’s awareness, it is good to present his objective in a “descriptive” way. What does this mean? In fact, what I call the “descriptive method” is in some ways a scenario set up by the professional that puts the client directly into the scene. This method is meant to be educational in the sense I developed in my first article. Let’s see how this can affect the discussion on losing weight:
During the interview, the personal trainer takes a clean piece of paper on which he will sketch out a table, which will be filled in progressively as the dialogue moves along.
You: Your goal is to lose weight. May I show you how that will happen through practicing a physical activity?
Client: Yes, of course.
You: I would like to ask you a question. What is excess weight?
Client: It is fat.
You: And what is fat?
Client: I suppose it is what we store. It’s energy.
You: Yes, for the body, fat is above all energy. And our body likes to stock up on this energy to a certain extent. It does this for its own survival. It is a very natural system for the body. Excess weight is an overstock of fat and thus of energy. Of course, paradoxically it doesn’t make us feel very energetic. But let’s stay with the essential physiological basis. How can you diminish these reserves of energy?
Client: By using up the stocks.
You: Yes, that’s exactly the right way to put it: “using the stocks of energy”. And as your personal trainer, I will show you how we can optimize that using physical activity.
While speaking, the fitness professional begins to fill in this diagram on the piece of paper:
Creating Unstructured Activities
What happens next is, to me, very important. In effect, this part is educational but also excellent coaching work: the progressive discovery of successive objectives that will help the client to include physical activity in his every day routine.
This phase involves drawing the attention of the client towards a distinction between two types of physical activity: “unstructured” and “structured.”
Unstructured activities involve everything we can do in our daily lives to increase our level of physical activity. I divide it into two further categories:
- Move around: taking the stairs instead of the elevator; getting off the subway or bus one stop early and walking the rest of the way to work or the children’s school; walking the dog, etc.
- Make an effort to do things: gardening, washing the car, do-it-yourself activities, playing tennis, engaging in weekend activities with the family, etc.
This process involves brainstorming with the client in order to awaken his creativity. I enjoy this work, both for the awareness building it brings to the client but also because it provides me with elements I can use to determine objectives. For example, what if the client says to me, “Twice a week, I could park my car 600m from my office and walk the rest of the way.” After verifying the client’s “confidence” (see above), I can take this initiative into account as an objective to achieve during the first month. I could formulate it with the client as, “For the period from _____ to ________, I will park my car at _______ and walk to the office.” This can then be done for all of the possible opportunities.
Implementing Structured Activities
Let’s now move onto the structured activities. Here, we must illustrate the process of using up the fat, by dividing up the two factors: cardiovascular and muscular.
The cardiovascular activities can be done inside or outside. It is important to show the client the possibilities that exist outside of the gym or training room. Personally, I like to enlarge on the “aerobic” concept by talking about bike rides, basketball, tennis, group classes, etc., all of which can complement more structured work in the training room, with or without the personal trainer. Here, as well, we can find the elements that can be used to set objectives together with the client.
By working in this way, we can demystify traditional cardio training, which is not always easy for clients who are just starting out.
The second part of the structured activities involves those that make up the specific work of the personal trainer, in terms of the “total body workout.” This is when the personal trainer explains to the client how he will be addressing it and his approach to the body.
I believe that all fitness professionals must become aware of the enormous role we can have in the world of health. However, we cannot limit ourselves to giving good advice and prescribing useful exercises. We must develop a profile and an attitude as professionals that are founded on science and research into the human body and also on behaviour and change management.
With the evolution of personal training, it is fundamental to define an area of coherent intervention. To me, this means setting the boundaries of our role, and keeping the intervention process consistent within them. It’s rather like a multi-sport terrain, which includes boundary lines for basketball, volleyball and tennis courts. Much of the play surface for each sport is the same as for the others, but there are places where one game reaches beyond the other. For the personal trainer, this means that we use intervention techniques that are also used by other professions (i.e., physiotherapists, osteopaths, psychologists, coaches, etc.) but in the end with very different steps (the rules of tennis are different from those of volleyball).
What we must remember is that a large part of the population (in whatever country) is still too sedentary, and cardiovascular illnesses as well as obesity and Type II diabetes continue to wreak havoc. We can play an important role in helping people to defend themselves against these incursions, to the benefit of themselves and our communities.
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- Rollnick, Stephen et.al. Health Behaviour Change. UK: Churchill Livingstone, 2002.