Our fitness clients frequently have negative thoughts about body image, performance or even self-worth that may often even manifest in negative words spoken. As personal trainers, we should be prepared to respond to the client with compassion and skillfully guide them towards a more positive mindset and increased confidence.
What is Negative Self-Talk?
We have a personal narrative running all day long, forming judgments, thoughts, and questions about the people and things around us. When those judgments, thought, and questions point at ourselves and reinforce negative ideas we have about ourselves, it’s called negative self-talk.
Have you ever heard yourself or your client say these things before?
“Ugh, I look so fat. I’ll never have a beach body.”
“I can’t even run 1 mile. I should give up on cardio.”
“Why do I even try to work out? I’ll never lose the weight.”
“I haven’t gained any muscle mass. Skinny guys like me don’t belong in the gym.”
“I need to add sprints to my workouts, I’m looking a little chubby.”
“I’ll never get my young body back. Exercise and diet are useless.”
How Can Negative Self-Talk Hurt?
Negative self-talk and especially negative body-talk can hinder many aspects of life from body image, body-satisfaction, confidence, focus, and even physical performance in the gym.
In a study conducted at Northwestern University by Renee Engeln, Margaret Shavlik, and Colleen Daly, over two-hundred college women participated in a brief strength and conditioning group fitness class. Some participants were grouped in a class where the instructor provided appearance-focused comments during the class and others were grouped in a class where the instructor provided function-focused comments.
Before and after the class they were asked to report their level of satisfaction with their bodies. At the end of the study, body satisfaction from pre-exercise to post-exercise in both groups increased, but the students grouped with function-focused comments reported a more significant increase in their pre-exercise to post-exercise body satisfaction.
According to the researchers, the study concluded that “in most fitness classes, a number of cues orienting women toward the appearance of their bodies are already present (e.g., mirrors and the presence of other women in revealing clothing). Instead of adding to a potentially objectifying environment, fitness instructors have an opportunity to do the opposite: to remind their students that exercise is not about shame or the need to emulate a specific body ideal, but rather about feeling better and improving one’s ability to achieve the things one wants to in their life”(Daly, Engeln, Shavlik, 2018).
Although the instructors made no negative comments in this study, the students were encouraged to focus on their appearance during class regardless of how they felt about themselves before the class. If a student showed up to the class feeling dissatisfied with their body, they might not feel more satisfied if they’re encouraged to keep focusing on their bodies during class, in front of a mirror.
This scenario opens up a door for negative self-talk.
How to Combat Negative Self-Talk
Although it may seem like a genuinely encouraging thing to make comments to your clients like, “let’s get a beach body,” and “blast that fat” there are better comments you can make to help clients change their personal narrative from negative to positive.
Shift Away from Appearance-Focused Comments
Try swapping any appearance-focused comments you may make like, “That set looked great!” with more motivating comments that highlight effort or positivity instead:
“Choose to improve”
“Don’t stop now”
“Give this your very best”
“Make every minute count”
“You were born to move your body”
“Who are you doing this for?”
“Choose to move”
“One workout stronger than yesterday”
“You worked really hard today”
Use a Phrase or Mantra
Have your client pick a favorite motivating quote, phrase, mantra, etc. and recite it to them during each session. Encourage them to recite it and “preach” to themselves during exercise. If you want to step it up a level, you could write their phrase on the mirror in your gym or studio, or maybe even as a reward for attending a certain number of sessions you gift them with a water bottle or t-shirt with that phrase on it.
To combat any negative self-talk, incorporate a daily gratitude practice. Gratitude is a great way to start having compassion toward your body and to stop comparing yourself to others.
Gratitude practices could include:
Gratitude Meditation – Find a quiet place where you can sit in a relaxed posture. Take deep breaths and focus your attention to your immediate environment, then people in life you who are close to, then yourself, then the gift of life. After focusing on each thing individually, state aloud or in your mind, “For this, I am grateful.
Gratitude Journaling – Each day record 5-10 things that you are grateful for. If you happen to be struggling with negative body image, try to focus specifically on parts of your body that you can be grateful for. Try to be specific and work on a “because” statement.
At the end of the day, if your client can have an experience with you that leaves them feeling satisfied with their body and motivated to keep exercising and improving their fitness, then they’re going to come back to you to get that experience and take that newfound confidence with them outside of your sessions and into their lives. Even if your client comes to you asking for a beach body, give them the comments, the tools, and the heart to love the process more than the product.
Engeln, Renee, et al. “Tone It Down: How Fitness Instructors’ Motivational Comments Shape Women’s Body Satisfaction.” Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 2018, 12, pp. 508–524.; doi:10.1123/jcsp.2017-0047.