I need to Work My Way Up to the Gym

F*** I hate this line.

We’re not doing a good enough job. Obesity is still rampant, health care costs are increasing, and too many people are reasoning themselves out of exercise. The easy thing to do is to blame them, call them lazy, and condescendingly snicker when they grab a, well… Snickers bar.

We can continue what we’re doing and shout loud that people need to “get after it”. We can continue to post self-representing pictures stroking our own ego and masking it as motivation. We can even continue to tell people for the 10 millionths time the secret to losing weight and getting ripped. But it’s not working…

Einstein once said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results“. This mantra is well-established in program design but isn’t being followed where I believe it should be most present.

At the end I’m going to go over how you should respond when a client says this to you.

I believe the problem starts and ends with personal trainers — the preventative care practitioners. I believe that we are missing the root of the problem that far too many people don’t feel comfortable in the gym in their present state. I believe some people are not ready to make a change yet and this is our fault, not theirs.

We have made the learning curve too high with fitness. An elitist atmosphere has been created in gyms where the average inactive person no longer feels comfortable.

The gym is my second home. I joined the YMCA as a shy 105lbs 15 year old. I’m more comfortable there than I am on the street. Many of you are likely the same. Now put yourself in an uncomfortable scenario, say walking into a club. But this club isn’t the run of the mill club where guys lean awkwardly against the wall sipping mixed drinks with embarrassingly small straws while the girls have fun. It’s different…

You walked in on tango night and everybody else seems to be an expert. Suddenly you’re conscious of your every move. In your head you start yelling at the tiny black straw, “why won’t you get to my mouth? You’re making me look stupid!“

That’s how a new member of a gym feels. One wrong move and or one perceived condescending look and they’re out faster than you can sing the chorus line from Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”.

laiiiiiid back
With my mind on my money
And my money on my mind

I don’t have all of the answers but in this article I’m going to attempt to lay out all of the problems. Where I can I’ll offer a solution. I ask that you help and put any solutions to the problems you can think of below in the comments. I never want to hear anybody say that they need to work their way up to the gym again.


I don’t blame people for mistrusting fitness professionals. Whenever I had a client come from another trainer I immediately became concerned and assumed that trainer didn’t do a good job.

That’s scary.

Fitness is an unregulated industry that thrives off of emotion. Promises are made with little to no evidence to back them up and are too often broken. There’s no board to report to and the client is left with a bitter taste in their mouth and nowhere to turn. The worst part of all of this is that I believe it’s justified. There is no reason to trust a lot of fitness professionals.

The human body is the most complicated machine in the world. Professionals are trying to manipulate, fine tune, and heal every aspect of it with as little as a weekend’s education and anecdotal experience.

I don’t have a solution here other than to plead professionals to be just that, a professional. Be more comfortable saying “I don’t know” than you are saying “I know”. Just follow it up with, “I’m going to find out”. You aren’t supposed to understand the complications that come with chronic illnesses or nagging injuries that may or may not have been diagnosed properly on the back of your hand.

If you feel you can work with the client or are willing to research adequately to provide them with a high level of service go for it. If not, refer out.

Tried and failed before

Why did they fail? Answer that question before moving forward.

Don’t repeat the same mistakes another professional made and/or work to help them with whatever habits they struggled with previously.

The biggest reason I encountered when I spoke to new clients was that their schedule got in the way. A planned or unplanned interruption occurred and they never recovered. I advise trainers to always build a calendar 3 months in advance with every client.

Don’t just lay out major events like vacations. A friends wedding, daughter’s graduation, or family reunion needs to get documented as well. This way you can create a plan with your client to make sure that they understand how to recover after a weekend of indulgence. More than anything it’s comfort in knowing that they are doing the right thing.

If the problem was with a previous trainer be careful not to badmouth anybody. Listen intently to what the trainer did to curb the client’s results and don’t make the same mistake. Lay out your plan while making special mention of not repeating the same mistake.

Marketing images

Fitness models shoot pictures close to a competition. This means that they are usually in a dehydrated and malnourished state. It’s not sustainable. Nobody walks around shredded 24/7. In addition the photos are usually photoshopped.

Unfortunately these are the images we’re pummeled by that define fitness. It’s important to educate clients how these photos are taken and what is attainable. You might also want to lay out the daily sleep, nutrition, and workout plans these people follow. Try telling a 36-year-old professional father of 4 that he needs to eat 6 meals, sleep 8hrs, and workout 5 times a week.

My solution is to keep fitness fun. Exercise should be done for the love of movement and the vitality it brings, not for the six-pack. Realistic expectations and role models are a necessity. Teach people to train for life, not living to train.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory states that self-efficacy stems from 4 things:

1. Social persuasion. You can increase this with verbal encouragement. Compliment them on a specific aspect of the exercise they did well.

2. Psychological responses. This is largely determined by the client’s reaction to situations like trying a new exercise. What important to note is that intensity of the psychological response is secondary to perception of how it is perceived and interpreted.

3. Master experiences. When a client performs well his or her self-efficacy increases. If you want them to try a new exercise where they may feel silly have them perform something you know they do well right before.

4. Social modeling. This is achieved by witnessing others accomplish a similar task. Providing clients with good role models is essential.

Nobody knows what works, not even trainers

I was at conference and made a point to walk around when lectures were on. In one room there was a lecturer speaking on research pertaining to human performance. The room was sparse. Down the hall was a group exercise class with loud pumping music, instructors yelling, and more variations of fitness toys than you would see in most gyms. The room was packed.

Trainers fall prey to the same marketing hype as their clients. They get taken in by the next best thing and run home with their arms full of toys eager to show it to their clients.

I don’t argue with trainers anymore on their chosen modality(ies) because everything works for at least a little while. The caveat is that you have to stick with something long enough to get a training effect.

What doesn’t work is confusing the hell out of your clients. Educating yourself on different equipment is great but constantly throwing new toys at them is counterproductive.

They pay good money and take time out of their busy day to get results, not play with toys. Confusing people into not knowing what works and what doesn’t work will keep them out of the gym. They might think that they look stupid if they feel they aren’t doing the right thing. Presenting too many options or constantly changing what the right thing is could keep or drive them away.


Supplements replacing real food

I had a rule when I was a trainer that until a client could bring me a food record showing a well-rounded, consistent, healthy diet for a month I didn’t recommend even a protein powder. That diet was simple and almost always the same: nutrient dense carbs surrounding workouts, lots of protein, tons of veggies, healthy fats, and lots of fiber specifically for older folks.

Maybe this was right and maybe it was wrong. I got fed up answering questions on the minutia of whether one protein supplement was better than another when the client hadn’t eaten a vegetable since Lewinski thrust herself into the public eye (whammy…) My goal was always to help the client focus on the 80% and leave the 20% until later. Arguing over the heavy metal content in different protein powders seemed irrelevant.

So how about we go back to the basics with nutrition? My system was simple and worked magic:

The client completed a 3-day food record and gave it to me. I took a look over while they sat with me at the desk. I then would ask them what THEY wanted to change. They almost always chose what I would have chosen. I agreed, circled it on the paper, ripped the paper off of the page and told them to keep the note in their pocket wherever they went.

I never expected them to read the note but I knew they would put their hand in their pocket. When they did it stimulated a cascade of events starting with remembering what was on the paper and finishing with an image of me smiling at them from across the table.

The following week they would pick a second change, and so on until they had fixed their own diet.

Frustrated that client’s aren’t following your nutrition plan? This will help.

I built this system off of my belief that people know what they should be eating; they just don’t know where to start. Allowing them ownership over their decision worked wonders and it resulted in a greater sense of accomplishment.

Confusing them with a batch of new rules and limitations at once resulted in confusion and reduced adherence. Big rocks first – fill in the dust later.

Rehab Paralysis

When did personal trainers become rehab professionals?

Rehab is meant to be done by rehabilitation professionals. Generally they have 4 additional years of schooling. Personal trainers are meant to take people post-rehab and get them performing.

This past week I was in Lethbridge, Alberta with a consulting client and we worked out at Gold’s Gym for 4 days. At first the trainers impressed me, their clients seemed to be training with good form. After 4 days of working out in the same club I didn’t see one client that appeared to be working hard. They hardly broke a sweat.

There seems to be a trend where clients are being told they are hurt and are put in cycles of perpetual rehab. I call this rehab paralysis. A minor ache that would otherwise go unnoticed becomes a big deal. Each workout the trainer takes 20+ minutes activating, mobilizing, and massaging a client to take away their aches and pains.

I believe this is the trainer’s fault. The human brain is powerful. If a person believes they are injured they develop phantom pain and start to protect the area.

The result is a lot of people that are afraid to move – exactly the opposite of what we want.

My rule was that if a client was in pain I referred them out. If they could move we worked on grooving motor patterns and performance. That was my job. The rehab experts can focus on the boring stuff (sorry Dean).

I have “x” or are intolerant to “y” or somebody told me not to do “z”


I once had a client that had serious shoulder issues. She couldn’t ride in a car without writhing in pain because of the vibration. 3 different professionals diagnosed the shoulder as 3 different things: a bursitis, a rotator cuff tear, and an impingement. Every scan she had was negative.

What the crap?

These were chiropractors and physiotherapists. She was scheduled for surgery to repair something that wasn’t torn. After a careful assessment I had a hunch and with the help of Eric Cressey we postulated that the problem was in her diaphragm. I thought that years of singing caused it to be in spasm compressing a nerve and causing referred pain in the shoulder. A combination of singing lessons, a cortisol shot, and strengthening of the mid back made the problem go away. To this day she doesn’t have any issues.

Whether I was right or not isn’t the point. The point is that she was going to go under the knife to fix a problem that wasn’t there.

People are being told that they are rife with problems. The news is filled every day with a new scare in our food and our caring friends are quick to diagnose our aches and pains without a thorough assessment or requisite knowledge.

It’s an uphill battle but one personal trainer’s must fight. A friend who plants an idea in your clients head that they have patella tendinitis will leave them walking into the gym slower and more protective. This phenomenon was shown in a famous study by John Bargh.

In it he scrambled words for 30 students at New York University. For one group the scrambled sets of words pertained to the elderly (ex. worried, old and grey). In the other group the words were free of association. The participants were asked to complete sentences with the words. After completion they were thanked and led out — this is where the real study took place.

The group that formed sentences with words pertaining to the elderly took 15% longer to reach the elevator than those who didn’t. Among other things this study showed that our subconscious pervades all aspects of our behaviour, even the ones we don’t commonly see as choices. (Note that I learned about this study from the Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. I also stole that last sentence directly from the book because she worded it so well)

What all this means to us is that if people believe they are hurt or are told that they are feeble they will perform worse. This happens on both a conscious and subconscious level.

Exercise is daunting

The first step is always the hardest. When new people come into the gym they are often teetering on the edge. One wrong move could lead them astray and cause them to relapse back into inactivity. It’s up to us to make fitness approachable and do everything in our power to help them keep at it.

What to Do When Somebody Says This to You

This is where I recommend asking “why?” 3 times. A common response is to say something about the importance of form, but that’s not really emotional to the client and it will rarely work. If the client has previously gotten hurt in the gym you may be able to make an appeal to safety.

Similar to dealing with any other objection, you must first know what the real objection is.

Is the client embarrassed? Dealing with the objection would be to tell him or her that you can train in a private part of the gym?

Does the client think that your training won’t be effective for them yet? Here you can speak about the fabulous gains that trainees get early on and that it’s actually more important to train when “green” than after.

Get deeper.

Further reading

The Art of Choosing – Sheena Iyengar

Client Behavior Change: A Key to Personal Trainer Success (Understanding the transtheoretical model) – Mark Young

Personal Trainers Shouldn’t Periodize – Jonathan Goodman

References: Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., and Burrows, L. “Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and sterotype activation on action,.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996): 230-244.

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