I’ve noticed a very disheartening trend in the fitness industry over the last few years.
Personal training gurus are instructing fitness professionals to “fire” clients who don’t immediately do everything the trainer asks — the ones who “aren’t willing to work hard for the results they want.”
To me, that’s just lazy and cynical: are fitness professionals really supposed to work only with the easy clients, the ones who need the least help, while refusing to help the ones who need it most?
We can do much better than that.
At Precision Nutrition, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of how to coach — and if you’re a fitness professional reading this, I’m betting you do too.
Don’t fire your clients — help them!
In the Precision Nutrition Certification Program, we’re careful to remind fitness professionals never to dismiss clients as “unmotivated” or “lazy.” Every single client can lose fat, build muscle, and improve their health.
The question is: how do you do it?
Well, an elite fitness professional recognizes that different clients will require vastly different coaching approaches, and will change his or her approach as needed to help ALL kinds of clients.
At Precision Nutrition, we group our clients into 3 categories, each one requiring a different coaching strategy:
Client #1: Low compliance.
Struggles to follow the program.
Client #2: High compliance, low results.
Follows the program, gets below-expected results.
Client #3: High compliance, high results.
Follows the program, gets above-expected results.
Each of these types has specific needs and the ability to make dramatic change.
Learn the coaching methods for each group and you will start to see success with EVERY client that comes to you for advice.
Client #1: Low compliance
Struggles to take the action you prescribe.
Roughly 60% of all clients.
Goal: Boost compliance.
Strategy: Make it too easy.
In our online coaching programs, for example, we define a low compliance client as someone who does less than 80% of the habits and workouts we prescribe — and as a result, gets poor results.
Of course, this is the type of client that many people suggest you fire. Just one small problem: this type also happens to be the vast majority of all personal training clients.
Many trainers write the Low Compliance client off as unmotivated, but with some help changing habits, this type of client can see amazing results.
At Precision Nutrition, we’ve found that the Low Compliance client needs the following:
1. A clear understanding of why change is important to them.
We never assume that getting in shape is important to our clients; instead, we ASK them. “On a scale of 1-10, how important is this to you?” If it’s anything less than a 9, we begin by helping the client find their own sense of purpose and meaning in their pursuit of fitness — otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before they flounder and quit.
2. Confidence in their ability to do what’s asked of them.
This is the cause of so many issues for clients — they’re just not confident they can actually do what the coach is asking. And many coaches, out of haste or ignorance, forget to ask! Our experience is that unless a client is nearly 100% confident that they can follow a plan, they’ll never begin in earnest.
3. Clear operating instructions to avoid ambiguity.
We make no assumptions that our clients will understand what we’re asking them to do. “Take fish oil” may sound simple, but what brand? How much? When do I take it? With meals or on an empty stomach? Any ambiguity in your advice will lower confidence, and in turn, compliance.
4. Simple, high value habits they can feel successful in doing.
Coaches often assume that their advice is easier to follow than it actually is, and become judgmental of clients who can’t follow it. In fact, behavior change is extraordinarily difficult. Advice as simple as “Make a healthy breakfast” can really mean a dozen changes to a client’s life, from how they shop to what time they wake up in the morning.
So be cautious when giving advice, because it’s far easier than most coaches realize to give advice that is essentially impossible to follow.
The solution? Make it easier — too easy, in fact. Advise only the smallest possible behavior change that will yield a noticeable and significant physical result.
So how do you do all of this at once?
The confidence method:
1. Suggest a daily habit to be followed for 2 weeks. E.g., “Each day, you’ll make yourself a healthy breakfast of your choosing from the Gourmet Nutrition cookbook.”
2. Ask the client to tell you how confident they are that they can do it. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that you can do that every day for the next two weeks?”
3. If they’re at least 90% confident, go with it. If they answer either “9” or “10”, have them start practicing that habit, and check back in a week to see how they’re doing.
4. If they’re less than 90% confident, suggest an easier habit and try again. If they answer “8” or below, simplify the habit or come up with an easier one. E.g., “How about a quick shake each morning?” or, “How about taking 6 grams of fish oil each morning?” Keep going until you get a response of “9” or “10” on the confidence scale. When you get it right, clients typically respond, “Psshhh, well, obviously I can do that.” And that’s the exact response we’re looking for.
5. Once you’ve found your habit, give the client permission to ignore everything else. The client needs to know that this one habit is all that matters. They can skip everything else they’ve read about nutrition, and everything else they think they “ought” to do. But once they commit, this habit has to be done every day.
Why it works:
Instead of following orders, the client is co-creating their own new behavior. Instead of disempowering clients by telling them what to do, we guide them and encourage them to choose for themselves. Ultimately, all change has to come from within.
The chosen habits are confidence-inspiring, realistic — and most of all, attainable. Clients get easy-to-follow daily habits perfectly suited to their own lives and abilities, which drastically improves compliance.
By simplifying and clarifying the habit, you can help your clients feel bigger than the challenge ahead.
And as their confidence increases, their compliance and rate of change (fat loss, performance, health markers) will increase as well. Then you can challenge them with incrementally bigger habits, and the results build on themselves.
Client #2: High compliance, low results
Takes the prescribed action, doesn’t get the expected result.
Roughly 20% of all clients.
Goal: Measurable progress.
Strategy: Experiment with new (and somewhat more challenging) habits
A High Compliance, Low Results client follows the program but isn’t getting optimal results.
In our online coaching programs, a high compliance client does more than 80% of the habits and workouts we prescribe but falls below our body transformation targets. With clients working on fat loss, for example, we look for those losing less than 0.6 percent of their body weight per week (for guys) or 0.5 percent of their body weight per week (for women).
[One caveat: fat loss isn’t always linear, and progress may be made in fits and starts. But on average, over time, the above numbers are what we aim for.]
Now, this type of client can be just as frustrating as the first group, but for a different reason: they seem to be doing all the “right things,” but the results just aren’t coming. But let’s not “fire” these clients yet either. They, too, can be helped.
The goal with this type of client is to have them lose weight at or above the target rate of weight loss, which will also increase confidence and motivation. And we use two approaches to help boost their progress.
First, we help them achieve a slightly higher compliance rate. Simply going from 80 to 90 percent compliance often makes all the difference in this type of client.
Second, we individualize their program. And this is where your all your training as a fitness pro can really shine through. Here’s where you tweak the training program, introduce more advanced nutrition concepts, and start those fancy, body-type specific supplement protocols.
[If you’d like to see how we do individualization, I strongly recommend you check out the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. In the certification program, we offer all sorts of advanced troubleshooting and individualization ideas.]
Client #3: High compliance, high results
Takes the prescribed action, gets the expected result.
Roughly 20% of all clients.
Goal: Prevent burnout and build sustainable habits.
Strategy: Give praise, permission to be imperfect, and cautious attention.
A High Compliance, High Results client is someone who follows the program with greater than 80% compliance and is also meeting the target rate of body composition change.
For example, at Precision Nutrition, our target rate of fat loss is 0.6% of body weight per week for men, and 0.5% of body weight per week for women, on average.
Results higher than that are fantastic — clients are doing the program, and getting the results they want. However, they still need your cautious attention.
When the going is good with this client we recommend two things: congratulations and a new challenge.
For the “congratulations” portion, offer praise and recognition. “It’s obvious how much you want this, John — your dedication and results have been amazing so far. Nice work. Let’s keep it up.”
You can also throw in a gift certificate to a healthy restaurant, or hook them up with a book you think they’d enjoy. You could also post their name up on a progress bulletin board at the gym.
In the end, the method doesn’t usually matter — the fact that you recognize their hard work and progress, either privately or publicly, does.
As for the challenge, consider giving them a similar but new and more challenging habit to follow. That’s assuming, of course, that they’re still “9” or “10” on the confidence scale. And as time goes on, choose habits that build lifelong nutrition strategies and allow for imperfection.
For example, if clients have a history of binge eating, habits might include weekly hunger management or appetite awareness practice; if a client has a tendency to be obsessive about food, habits might work on eating healthy while relaxing the “rules” a bit.
We mention giving this type of person your “cautious” attention because sometimes the clients who start out strongest do so by throwing themselves completely at their goal. That’s OK, but only if they’re also developing strategies they can follow when they’re unable to devote 100% of their life to fitness. And, none of us can do the “all fitness, all the time” thing.
So keep a close eye even on your superstars, because burnout is always a risk with them. You’re in a perfect position to help out if it arises, and if you watch closely, you can often prevent it in the first place.
To help all clients, add nutrition coaching to your resume.
I can’t tell you how many times other fitness pros have told me, “Man, I envy you. You have the best clients. If I could get clients like you have, I’d love my job.”
But we start out with the same mix of clients that every other fitness pro starts with. The difference is this: we know that each type of client can climb the ladder and move up to High Compliance, High Results.
We start with a belief that every client can become the “perfect client,” and we’re constantly testing new strategies to make it happen.
The key is the ability to identity what type of client someone is right now, how we can help them, and what specific steps we can take to get them to that next level.
That is the job of the elite fitness professional — and with a little effort, it’s a skill you can learn. If you’re interested in learning how, we’ll teach you in the Precision Nutrition Certification.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
You can help people build sustainable nutrition and lifestyle habits that will significantly improve their physical and mental health—while you make a great living doing what you love. We'll show you how.
If you’d like to learn more, consider the PN Level 1 Nutrition Coaching Certification.