Cautioning Clients Against Comparisons


When a personal training client tries to hold herself to unrealistic standards, the result will not be a satisfactory outcome. Comparing to others ends up with the client chastising herself for not working hard enough.

Our job is to offer her a new and more positive perspective on the true self she is probably overlooking. We also have to be careful that we don’t contribute to the body shaming and false perceptions circling around the fitness industry.

Gym Avoidance


According to a recent study conducted across the United States, 65% of women polled expressed “gym anxiety” to the point of avoiding the gym altogether.

The root of this feeling appeared to stem from the fear of being judged by others. 55% admitted feeling looked down upon for not appearing “fit enough”, and many even expressed feeling anxious about their choice of fitness attire.

Most trainers work with a diverse clientele. We train seniors to navigate activities of daily living; we train serious stage-bound bodybuilders and competitive athletes. However, many of us find that the majority of clients come to us simply wishing to “look better”.

While this is indeed a laudable goal, there are always one or two clients, typically women, who are constantly comparing themselves to others in the gym…to their own detriment.

Your clients may observe someone else doing the same exercises they are, and wonder why that individual exhibits the body type they cannot seem to achieve.

It is nice to admire another’s physique and attempt to create a version of that for oneself. However, genetics also play a role here, an aspect of our bodies that we simply cannot alter, even with the most strenuous of workouts.

Society Defines Self-Image

How many of our clients engage in physical exercise due to excessive media messages promising a road to changing one’s size, shape, and weight? This notion negates any possibility of cultivating acceptance and a positive sense of self.

While results-driven goals propel us toward self-improvement, at what point does this take a negative and obsessive turn? This occurs at the juncture of comparison to other athletes, and the lack of understanding that such a mindset can turn a positive experience into a destructive, spiraling tailspin.

Life Outside The Gym

It has been pointed out to me, and demonstrated many times, that what occurs during a training session has less of an impact upon results than lifestyle habits. We can only be held accountable for providing knowledge, guidance, support, encouragement, safety, and ever-changing workouts to challenge our clients…all in a 55-minute session.

What occurs when the client is not with us? Helping him/her acknowledge life patterns that may intercept or even sabotage gym goals can register as the “Aha!” moment that had never been considered.

Role Models?


A prime example of this is the client who seeks out and compares herself to an unrealistic role model. Such clients will, for example, point out a woman at the gym who is preparing for a bodybuilding or bikini/physique competition.

There is a vast difference in the lifestyles and habits of these two individuals, a point that is lost on most female clients. Your client may consider herself dedicated to her workouts and eating a clean diet, and she is probably accurate.

The competitor, on the other hand, is training and eating in a very different manner.  The lifestyle restrictions that one must endure during competition preparation are extreme.

By helping your client understand that her habits outside the gym differ greatly from a stage-bound woman, and pointing out what she is able to embrace and enjoy as part of her time away from the gym (such as enjoying a glass of wine or occasionally going out for pizza) may help her gain some realistic perspective.

Beyond Barbells

Raising the issues of, “What else are you doing for yourself, aside from strength-training, to enhance your health and physique?” may provoke a defensive posturing from clients. Listening skills on the part of the trainer come into play here; what remains unsaid is often more potent than what they choose to reveal.

What Lies Inside

If you sense that self-esteem is an issue with a client, try to explore other aspects in her life where she feels she excels: what brings her true satisfaction at the end of the day? While we are not professionally trained in counseling, a few such moments spent at the end of each workout can allow the client to reflect on progress made in all aspects of her life.

A gentle reminder that the act of exercising or strength training IS a way of honoring oneself can help foster positive vibes. Periodically asking, “Are you having fun with today’s workout?” can elicit an awareness of “Yes! By taking care of myself, I sure am!”

This cannot be expected to occur overnight; in fact, chances are that this type of client has been berating herself for a good portion of her life. Old habits die hard; just a casual mention of how much more energy she has lately can encourage her to keep going.

Introducing a Healthier Path

Nancy Gerstein, who authored Guiding Yoga’s Light: Lessons For Yoga Teachers, suggests to her students that they try to get in touch with their original motivation for participating in any activity. Says Gerstein, “Since the mind needs something it can attach to, it usually gravitates toward the lowest common denominator like worry, guilt, or anxiety — or, of course, what you’re doing wrong.”

Our job is to redirect attention to everything our client is doing correctly. And to be both a motivator and a mentor.

Every client’s fitness experience is unique. Comparing it to anyone else’s will not help her feel good about herself, which is really the whole point of working hard both in and out of the gym. Living one’s optimal life means creating the best possible version of oneself. Muscle mass can always be added, but the real strength lies in being true to and honoring ourselves.

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Avoiding Comparison at the Gym


Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at [email protected]. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!