Going Psycho: Applying Behavioral Theory to Personal Training

No, this article is about the mental (psycho) state of likely the majority of personal trainers who have taken the onslaught of New Years’ resolutions and cancellations due to sick kids or additional work shifts by your clients. This article will focus on addressing the mental state of your client and perhaps even you. As opposed to focusing on the “how” or “what” to exercise, this article focuses on the “why.” There are many theories about why people make health changes. Knowing these theories can both help you learn what may help get your client to “make the leap” or adhere to their regime and your training program. Despite a high degree of variability among individuals in terms of background, different motives for working out, different strengths and weaknesses, the field of psychology maintains that are certain patterns and drives that occur predictably in most people.

Theoretical Perspectives on Behavior

Some theories are known as social-cognitive models because they involve some aspect of society or “external cues” and the cognitive perspectives of the individual.

The Health-Belief Model1

This model looks at the interactions of individual perceptions of the susceptibility and severity of a disease, and modifying factors of demographics, external cues such as mass media, friends, family members, physicians etc. It finally considers the perceived benefits of preventative action minus the perceived barriers to those actions which leads to the likelihood of taking a health action. This falls into the disease avoidance category.

The Self-Efficacy Theory2

This theory states that all behavioral changes are mediated by the belief that one can successfully perform the desired action. A belief includes that one possesses the skills to perform the action to an effective level, the ability to elicit those skills under particular conditions, and that those skills will consistently lead to the desired goal (result). Perceived self-efficacy will determine: whether an individual attempts a given task, the degree of persistence when difficulties are encountered, and likelihood of ultimate success. Some ways to  elicit self-efficacy in clients include:

  •  modeling the correct behavior for them;
  • showing them others who have had success by using a similar technique/ regime;
  • have them perform the behavior successfully.

Bandura, the creator of the theory, later expanded his theory into the Social Cognitive Theory which included the “expectations of outcome” and “outcome or response efficacy” mentioned previously.

The Protection Motivation Theory3

 This is similar to the previous two theories. The intention to protect oneself depends on: 1) the perceived severity or an event, 2) the perceived vunerability of the individual, 3) The efficacy of the recommended preventative action (response efficacy), and the perceived self-efficacy to take the action.

The Theory of Reasoned Action4(TPB) and the Theory of Planned Behavior5

These models are similar in that they posit that the intention to perform a behavior is the result of several influences. The TRA proposes that someone takes a given action because of the individual’s attitude (belief the behavior leads to certain outcome and their evaluation of the outcome) and the influence of social factors (beliefs from “significant others” that person should not perform the behavior, and the person’s motivation to comply with those social forces. The Theory of Planned Behavior is similar but it adds the dimension of perceived behavioral control (PBC). The PBC is based on the belief that one has necessary resources and opportunities and the power to control factors that facilitate or inhibit behavior. The PBC has many similarities to self-efficacy in that someone needs to feel confident in both their skills and the ability to use those skills.

The Transtheoretical Theory6

Also known as the readiness for change model, this theory differs in that it is not a social cognitive model. It consists of core constructs from several other models, hence the name. The model focuses primarily on an individual’s stage of change. The orignators of this theory posit there are six main stages- precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. Different strategies and cues are more helpful than others depending on the individual’s stage of change. The behavioral interventions become more important with the progression into later stages.


To expand your services, you may have to go into unchartered territory and deal with people who are not currently exercisers or starting to lose motivation to keep going. For these reasons, it is important to understand some of the theories that pertain to exercise adoption and adherence. In other words, go psycho.


1.Becker, M.H. (1974). The Health Belief Model and Personal Health Behavior. Health Education Monographs. Vol. 2, No. 4.
2. Bandura, A. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review. 84(2), 191-215
3. Rogers, R. A Protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change. Journal of Psychology Sep75, Vol. 91 Issue 1, p93 22p.

4. Fishbein, M and Ajzen, I. Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975.
5. Ajzen, I. The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes;  50(2), 179
6. Prochaska, J. O., & DiClemente, C. C. (1983). Stages and processes of self-change in smoking.: Toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, 390–395.



These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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