What Challenging Clients Teach You as a Personal Trainer

challenging clients

As personal trainers, we would love it if all clients we work with were “easy” in terms of communication, adherence, motivation, and commitment. However, we are serving people, not robots. Turns out, this is a good thing. We learn more from climbing difficult mountains than following a smooth and clear path. For this article, I interviewed three other certified personal trainers to get their insights as to what they learned when working with challenging clients.

Lessons from Fitness Industry Pros

Alex D.

Alex has been a certified personal trainer for three years and owns and operates his own remote personal training business. Alex shared that he has had two difficult/challenging clients in the last two years that have forced him to rethink his approach.

“Initially, I was just frustrated because I interpreted their lack of adherence as laziness. I was wrong. What I realized is that I had not built the solid foundation of rapport and trust that was necessary. I focused too much on the “science” part and not enough on the “people” part.

After speaking to a friend, also a personal trainer, she asked me how much I really knew about these clients and if I had spent time “digging” into the ‘why’ of their intentions. I realized the answer to that was no. I reconnected with these two clients with more intention and a more mature perspective. I spent time investing in them while they were investing in my services. We’ve been good ever since.”

The Lesson: The work we do is as much about the people we serve as the science of our craft.  

 Britany K.

Brittney, like Alex, owns her own face-to-face personal training and nutrition coaching business. She also instructs group fitness classes. When she first began, she was so focused on “creating the right program” that she overlooked an important factor. Much like, Alex, she was neglecting the human factor.

“After working with my fifth client, who was an unbelievable challenge, I realized something critical. To be a great personal trainer, you must also be a great coach. I had not considered the coaching aspect and the skills that accompany that role. For example, motivational interviewing was a skill I had to build. I also had to shift from being a drill sergeant to respecting that the client knows what is best for them and what is reasonable for them to do. Once I embraced this and focused on balancing the development of a safe and effective exercise program with the guiding voice of a coach, my clients’ success elevated to a new level.”

The Lesson: Invest in developing a coaching style.

Gavin G.

Of the three professionals I spoke with, Gavin was the most experienced with a 12-year career behind him. He shared three tips for working with challenging clients; tips he learned the hard way.

“As a new personal trainer, I wanted to do it all and do it all well. I didn’t realize until I felt the burnout that doing it all perfectly was not possible. And, when I would work with a difficult client, I found myself arguing with them about why they needed to do this or do that…I overlooked the fact that I was just encouraging them to dig their heels in and remain where they were. I didn’t respect how hard changing a pattern is. I was frustrated because my clients were frustrated. They were frustrated because I didn’t understand the challenge of change. I never struggled with it. I was always active, healthy, and fit. This is not the case for most of our clients who come to us. For me, I realized I needed to do three things.

First, develop my emotional IQ. I wasn’t responding to clients with the empathy they needed. Second, I needed to affirm to clients that change is hard and it’s ok to experience frustration – I normalized that. Finally, I needed to ask my clients how they wanted to be held accountable. There is more than one way. In doing this, my clients felt the kindness and compassion they needed to feel safe and secure with me and my style. We worked together to plan for hiccups in the road and we openly discussed the challenges they faced. Those clients are still with me today.”

The Lesson: Respect the challenge of change even if you’ve never had to struggle.

No two clients will ever be the same, and all will challenge you in unique and unfamiliar ways. Just as we would not want our clients to skip the struggle to change because the change is worth it – we shouldn’t skip or wish away the struggle to improve our skills. Those clients who challenge us, change us for the better and provide us with additional skills we would not have learned from a textbook or study program. It’s the life experience that helps us sharpen our edge in this industry.


Become a Master Fitness Trainer


Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com
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