Conducting Client Assessments
The term assessment seems to spark heated debate among fitness professionals. For the sake of clarification, the term assessment in this article is defined as: a meeting, consultation, appointment, session, orientation, or induction that involves a trainer and a client meeting to determine what the client wants/needs to achieve, and to discuss a plan of action.
The good news is that there is no one correct way to conduct a successful assessment with a client! The bad news is that there are numerous ways to deliver a poor experience - meaning you'll never see that client again. To save you from having to repeat the hundreds of mistakes I've made in my early days as a trainer, refer to this article as a blueprint for client assessments. This article serves to identify the purpose of client assessment, provide the fitness professional with a structure for client assessments, and explore the potential of this underutilized and underappreciated personal training tool.
Determining the Purpose(s) of the Client Assessment
Consider this question for a moment: What is the purpose of a client assessment?
Common responses to this question may include:
- to identify the risk of an adverse event like a heart attack occurring during exercise,
- to assist with designing a tailored program,
- to build rapport, and
- to identify client motivations and goals.
All of these are valid reasons for performing a client assessment, however, perhaps more important to consider is this:
How valid is the content and structure of the assessment in relation to its purpose(s)?
It is important to define the purpose of a client assessment in order to next identify what the assessment should entail. Remember, there is no one correct way to conduct an assessment as long as the content and structure fulfill the identified purpose(s) of that assessment session.
The following Table provides examples of the purposes for a client assessment in the gym/workplace versus the purposes for a client assessment conducted in the home of a new client:
|Gym/Workplace Health Assessment
|1. To provide the client with accurate information regarding health status and refer the client to his/her physician if any parameters are abnormal.
||1. To establish rapport and determine whether you can work together successfully to achieve the client’s goal.
|2. To initiate a conversation about an aspect of health (physical activity, healthy eating, lifestyle) as it relates to the client's goals, and increase his/her motivation to change a relevant health behavior.
||2. To familiarize yourself with the training space/tools available to work with in the client's home.
|3. To create an experience that exceeds the client’s expectation of Personal Training.
||3. To create an experience that exceeds the client’s expectation Personal Training.
In each case, the content and structure of the assessment are very different. Both are ‘right’ for the situation as they are valid for the identified purposes and meet the expectations of the client. Keep in mind, the example above does not intend to indicate that these should be the only purposes for each assessment type. Rather, this serves as an example that what may be most beneficial in one assessment, may not be in another. A new client assessed in-home may be more concerned with determining if you are the right person to invite into his/her home on a regular basis, as opposed to focusing on his/her health status and behaviors.
Deciding What to Include in an Assessment
If you’ve been paying attention to the information in this article so far, you realize by now that this section is not going to be a definitive list. A useful concept when designing assessments is that of structured freedom. Within this overall structure, there is enough freedom for you to choose which questions to ask, what measurements to take or physical tests to perform, making the assessment feel personal and relevant for the client. Establishing a structure for your assessment process, backed up by necessary documents to complete, provides a sense of preparation and professionalism that can be reassuring for clients.
Select the Questionnaires
The only absolute requirement during an assessment is completion of a screening to identify risk - if this has not already been completed prior to the assessment session. The Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire, or PAR-Q (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2002), provides evidence of performing a screening process that meets legal duty of care and should be included in every new client assessment, as well as updated in each review or re-assessment with the client.
In addition to the PAR-Q, completing a questionnaire to identify a client’s goals, relevant lifestyle factors, and other information needed to design a client program, ensures you have the necessary information to create a personalized, effective, and valuable program for your client. There are an infinite number of these types of questionnaires in the fitness profession. Some of these questionnaires include very basic and generic questions to gather information, whereas others are focused on a more in-depth approach to gathering valuable information.
It important that you implement a questionnaire that works best for you and your clients. I have found that the PTA Global Program Design Questionnaire (PDQ) is an effective and time efficient way to identify a client’s goals and preferred style of training and ability level, including a more in-depth approach by incorporating motivational interviewing questions. Motivational Interviewing is, “a collaborative conversation style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change” (Miller & Rollnick, 2012) and is an established approach to behavior change with over 200 scientific research papers supporting its efficacy.
Select the Measurements - Consider the Client
Depending on the client’s responses during the questionnaires, a selection of measurements and tests can be offered that are relevant to the goals identified. It can be helpful to initiate this process by asking open questions such as, “How would you like to monitor your progress?”
Some clients want and expect lots of tests during the assessment process. In this case, the more technical gadgetry involved, the more engaged the client will be, and in their minds these tests and gadgetry equate to your credibility as a trainer. When working with this kind of client, using an automated Blood Pressure monitor, bioelectrical impedance analysis for body composition, and performing an exercise test using a Heart Rate monitor, are ideal as these objective digitized measurements appeal to the client's analytical personality.
Other clients are not interested in tests at all, finding them intimidating, and may want to use very low-tech and more emotionally significant methods of tracking their progress - such as how a certain item of clothing fits or taking photographs to compare over time.
It is unnecessary to perform a series of measurements on all clients in order to provide them with effective programs that meet their needs. For example, making informal observations of their posture and movements may be sufficient enough to identify any significant restrictions. It is also important to recognize that a client's posture and movement ability may vary on a day to day basis, and that the client's current emotional state can be a factor in the success of each workout. Therefore, the information gathered during the first client assessment may not provide you with all of the information needed to make each session following a valuable one. By implementing quick assessment and screening tools as part of each session, such as the PTA Global Daily Readiness Observation and MOVE observation (PTA Global, 2012), you can gather information on the client's current physical and emotional state in order to modify the client's program as needed.
Structuring the Assessment Session
Having an awareness of how much time is available for each session component and how much time each measurement requires is essential. A successful assessment has sufficient time allocated to fulfill its purpose(s) and only includes the amount of components that can be comfortably completed in the time available. Very few great experiences take longer than we expected them to!
Quickly establishing an open and trusting level of communication, efficiently gathering the information needed to create a personalized client program, and leaving the client feeling confident and enthusiastic after the assessment (via the motivational interview) is a recipe for success. Running over time will only detract from the experience, no matter how well a posture assessment was conducted or how accurate skinfold measurements were!
As a general structure, consider the following:
Selling Assessments to Clients
It is not uncommon for personal trainers to feel that they are struggling to convince clients (or potential clients) to engage in assessment sessions. It is also not uncommon for personal trainers to feel hesitant to include assessments as free/complimentary sessions in their personal training packages. There are two main reasons for this situation:
- The trainer does not believe assessment sessions are valuable, or finds them boring to deliver. A client, or potential client, is greatly influenced by the personal trainer they are working with. If the trainer does not believe in the value of the assessment process, then more than likely the client will not recognize the value in the session either. For example, if the trainer associates session value with whether or not a client is completely fatigued from a workout, then this in turn leads the client to believe the same. So when the suggestion of a session to “sit and talk” is made, it is perceived as a waste of time and money. The key to preventing this is linking your personal training business model to client education and setting expectations from the outset. When the trainer educates the client on the value and benefits of conducting an assessment that identifies goals, enhances motivation, and gathers additional information needed to create an effective program, then they are more likely to have others willing to schedule assessments. If the trainer communicates that the personal training program will include a mid-way review assessment to track progress, adapt the program, and update goals, then the expectation is set from the beginning and there will be little to no resistance during the time of the assessment.
- The trainer does not create a valuable experience within assessment sessions. If an assessment is a dull experience for the client (ex: the client is asked a series of questions without feeling that the trainer is listening, and then put through various tests that the client is uninterested in or doesn't understand) then it is no surprise that the client does not value the appointment and will be reluctant to pay for, or participate in, any other session. Creating an experience that is valuable to the client (ex: the trainer listens empathetically, makes the client feel understood, and increases the client's motivation to make lifestyle changes outside of personal training sessions) is an entirely different proposition. In many cases, the discussions in assessment sessions, particularly on the topic of nutrition, can be more significant in helping clients achieve their goals than any exercise in that time period could be.
Successful Assessment Take-Aways
- Any assessment can be successful if the content and structure is valid for its purpose.
- When determinging your assessment process: 1) define the purpose of your assessments, 2) select the components you will include (questionnaires, measurements, tests, motivational interview, etc.), 3) determine the order of completion and timing for each component.
- Structure assessments to allow plenty of opportunity for "small talk" and to build rapport before performing physical measurements/tests and conclude the session with a motivational interview.
- Create an experience that is valuable to clients by educating them to expect assessments that empower them to take control of the aspects of their lifestyle outside of personal training sessions.
- PTA Global Certificate, Bridging and Advanced courses www.ptaglobal.com
- Miller, W. R., Rollnick, S., (2012). Motivational Interviewing, Third Edition: Helping People Change (Applications of Motivational Interviewing) (3rd Edition). Guilford Press.
- Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (2002). PAR-Q & YOU (A Questionnaire for People Aged 15 to 69), www.csep.ca/forms