The 4 Stages of the Trainer – Client Relationship

If you are new to personal training there are 4 stages to the trainer-client relationship you should be aware of. If you are studying for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) personal trainer exam you will need to know this;

1. Rapport

At the Rapport stage the personal trainer, that means you, should be building a foundation of trust with the client. Keep in mind good verbal and non-verbal communication are extremely important. While it takes time to build a relationship with a client and have them trust you, first impressions are key.

Often first impressions can determine if you gain a client or never see that client again. At the Rapport stage of the relationship make sure you are well groomed, have appropriate clothing, and be confident in what you are telling your prospective client.

One important thing I tell other personal trainers just getting started is to listen.  I don't just mean listen with your ears but you eyes too. What does that mean? If a client is telling you about different experiences with exercise you need to be aware of their body language, voice tone, and other factors.

Appear attentive to everything the client is telling you with laser-like focus. Remember for non-verbal communication keep good eye contact, have goody body position, and be aware of your facial expressions.

“Listening” is a skill I learned from doing Improv. I recommend if you want to be a personal trainer you go take an Improv 101 class. It will help you in many ways personally and professionally. Good listening is difficult and requires constant practice.

2. Investigation Stage

The Investigation stage is the information gathering stage of the trainer-client relationship. Keep in mind you are asking someone that has never met you to tell you a lot of personal information about themselves. This includes but is not limited to body weight (in my experience the most touchy subject), medical history, exercise history, feelings about fitness, etc.

You can get a lot from this information but like I said in the Rapport stage, listening is really important. Don't take and give advice because, “I am the professional.” be open to hearing the client on coming to terms with their reality.

If you listen properly you will typically be able to figure out what exercises a client likes, or might like, and what they will not like. You should also be able to figure out why a potential client hasn't been able to adhere to a fitness program. Are kids getting in the way? Stressful situations at work? There could be plethora of reasons and you need to find these out.

Often in the investigation stage clients can get personal. Be aware of what is outside a personal trainer's scope of practice. If a potential client reveals they are suffering from an eating disorder or from depression, you need to seek outside help and refer them to the right professional help.

3. Planning

The Planning stage is when you should be setting down plans, goals, and roadmap with the client about the fitness program. At this Planning stage you should;

  • Set goals
  • Talk about alternatives
  • Formulate a plan
  • Evaluate the exercise program with the client.

You will want to use SMART Goals to set down goals.  If you are studying for the ACE personal training exam, know SMART Goals.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based.

Remember there are many ways to measure fitness progress. The ultimate goal through is adherence to the program you have laid out for the client. Even if you have to switch something up, you want them to be sticking to workout out. Since that is the only way they are going to see results and you will be successful.

At this stage be more open to back-and-forth communication with yourself and the client. Use goal-generating questions to get a better understanding of the where they are what you need to do.

From all this you can formulate a plan. Make it clear and write it down and present this to a client. Keep in mind that even though you enjoy fitness and a gym, the client likely will feel overwhelmed and intimidated. Show empathy and respect for the difficulties clients face.

4. Action

The Action stage is just what you think, the exercise part of the relationship. What you traditionally think of when you think of the term “personal training”.

If you want your clients to have the best chance for success, use a self-monitoring system. You can give a fitness client flashcards, a sheet of paper, use an app, website, etc. Self-monitoring has been proven to drastically help with behavior change and adherence to a fitness program.

This acts a great way for a client to be self-aware of their actions. It will also create better communication about what they client is doing outside of the training session. Basically if someone knows they are getting watched and monitored, they will change their behavior.

When you are in the full swing of training a client, you are a teacher. Become familiar with the different ways people learn. Some learn better by watching, some learn better by listening, and some learning better with kinesthetics.

An auditory learner might want to hear you explain a lot and ask a lot of questions. A visual learner might just want to watch you do the exercises, monkey see monkey do.  Another might want you to correct them doing it. Keep in mind certain people might need combinations of these instructions.

Keep in mind motor learning and physically doing things your body is not used to can be frustrating for beginners. It takes times to improve and you need to be there for your clients.

Remember to “tell, show, do” for the clients. Give clear explanations of what you are doing, why, and let the client focus on performing the exercises with focus. Always;

  • Say what was done well and positively reinforce.
  • Tell the client what was done wrong in a polite but encouraging way.
  • Give motivation so that the client can continue to improve.

Sandwich the negative between reinforcement and motivation. Do not overload the client with information about what they are doing wrong. This is where most trainers make a big mistake. Focus on the biggest errors in the exercise first.

To help reinforce the behavioral change that is necessary for fitness you can try a Behavioral Contract. This isn't a legal contract it is just for the client-trainer. It says things like “I will Do ___ When ___ How often ___ How Much___”.  They can be rewards in the contract for completing goals and penalties if they don't. You also set a date when you will revisit the behavioral contract. I've had good results with these contracts but it varies from client to client.

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