2 Ways to Get Your New Personal Training Clients to Stay

Today’s article is about motivation, but not the rah rah motivation telling people to “get after it”. That motivates the already motivated; this article is about getting the people teetering on the edge of relapse into inactivity to stay active.

80% of a personal trainers job is to get the client into the gym and give them enough encouragement to stay. The workout and nutrition protocol is the other 20%. Admittedly, I didn’t give a lot of thought to my program design in the initial months training a new client. My main focus was always to get them to both feel comfortable in and love the gym.

This article is not about being a cheerleader. It’s about understanding motivation and what kind of feedback to give and when. Rewards are sometimes effective and sometimes detrimental to long-term adherence; I’ll explain when and how to use them.

At the end of this article, I’ll outline a couple systems you can implement in your own business. As always, look past the specific example and understand why my system works.



The best personal trainers educate and empower. Ownership over a decision leads to adherence. A client needs to feel as if they had a say in the design of their workout or nutrition protocol.

You lead the way and guide them towards a decision, but let them make it. New clients have often been inundated with information before they come into the gym. They know the basics. For example, the amount of times a new client told me that machines were bad and he or she heard that squats were a great fat burner always surprised me, but it happened often.

When it comes to nutrition, clients knew the 20% that would get them 80% of the results; they just didn’t know they knew it. So I would get them to track for 3 days what they ate and present the sheet to me. I then:

  1. Looked over the sheets.
  2. Spread them on the table where we could both see them at the same time.
  3. Asked him or her to circle whatever habits he or she wanted to change.
  4. I then told him or her to rank what they considered to be the most important habit that needed changing to least important

Without fail they picked what I would have picked, except THEY PICKED IT. I then looked at them, smiled, and said I agree. Their goal for the coming week was to fix that one habit; once they did, we would move onto the habit they chose as #2.

Always ask yourself: are you giving your clients what you want to give them, or what they need?

The Reward is the Task (sometimes)

Trainers seem to be obsessed with providing extrinsic motivators for performance. Perhaps it’s easier; that, or maybe we were brought up with extrinsic rewards and have never considered that they could be potentially harmful to motivation.
An extrinsic reward (for example an extra 20s break for finishing this set of squats or the same compliment you always give) changes the client’s purpose for completing the task.

A neuroscientist named Brian Knutson showed, using functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI), a burst of dopamine would rush into the brain when the participants anticipated that they were about to receive a reward. Physiologically the response to getting an award is akin to an addiction. The only way to maintain the desired response to the reward is to continue and give bigger and bigger rewards.

In order to get long-term results your clients needs to be intrinsically motivated. According to Daniel Pink in Drive, there are 3 pieces of the puzzle.

  1. The first is autonomy, which I covered above.
  2. The second is mastery. I talk about mastery at length in Ignite the Fire. A main aspect in the path towards mastery is achieving flow. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi the challenge cannot be too easy, or too difficult. It must stretch the body and mind in a way that makes the effort itself the reward.
  3. The third is purpose. Purpose is the clients emotional reason behind their fitness goals. If losing 10lbs means that your client feels he will be able to be around longer for his children — that ‘s his purpose. Make sure your clients are aware of the purpose behind their exercise, and not the superficial goals.

But extrinsic rewards sometimes work.

If the task is mindless, for example 30 burpees to finish a session, then extrinsic rewards can work. One of the rewards I would often give my clients is a stretch at the end of their session. When I see they are about to quit during a mindless finisher I would say “if you stop, we don’t stretch”.

The reward of a stretch only offered in return for completion of a mindless task doesn’t do any damage. The reason is that there is no joy in the task itself, it’s mindless and there is no room for autonomy or mastery. It’s “get shit done time”.

To decide when to offer extrinsic rewards all you have to think is whether or not the task is mindless. Learning a new exercise or coming in for workouts on their own does not receive a reward. Doing a 4-minute tabata set of thrusters at the end of a workout may benefit from a reward.

I’ll finish this discussion off with a beautiful poem by W.H. Auden.

You need not see what someone is doing

To know if it is his vocation,


You have only to watch his eyes:

A cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon


Making a primary incision,

A clerk completing a bill of lading,


Wear the same rapt expression, forgetting

themselves in a function.


How beautiful it is,

That eye-on-the-object look.

-W.H. Auden

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