being human: Key skills for PTs

By working on their 'human skills' personal trainers can improve rapport with clients and pave the way to more rewarding relationships and successful careers, says Chad Timmermans.

The ability to relate to and build rapport with someone – and to do so quickly – is a highly sought-after skill. Sales people know it; managers know it; and successful personal trainers also know it.

Consider the people you meet, the ones that leave a lasting impression on you and that you enjoy being around. They are the people who build rapport with you and make you feel comfortable, respected and liked. As a personal trainer you need to possess these 'human skills'. Your aim when meeting a client for their first session should be to build rapport so that they like you and feel confident placing their trust in you.

It is important to build this relationship and trust quickly. If a client leaves their first session feeling unsure, unvalued and without a sense of connectedness to you, they may lack faith in you, both as a person and as a trainer. If the relationship gets off to an uncertain start, it will take the client time to get over this sense of 'disconnect'. They will also be less likely to adopt your advice or to respond to you when you pull them up on not doing their homework. In the worst instance, the client fails to show up to their second session – or any subsequent ones.

The fitness industry needs to prioritise the teaching of human skills to staff, contracted trainers and everyone who interacts with members and clients. Trainers who have not developed these skills naturally in life should be exposed to training opportunities and make a conscious and ongoing effort to improve their interaction skills. Those who already possess these skills should be encouraged to enhance them further.

Human skills training is not always easy and people learn at different rates. But these skills are the backbone of a personal trainer's operation, and neglecting them can have a disastrous effect on a career.

Unaware of the value of building a strong relationship, the unskilled trainer can fail to support clients fully, or may judge them harshly because they lack sympathy for their predicament. The client will suffer, probably cease training and find their opinion of the whole industry negatively coloured by their experience.

The cream rises to the top

When presenting to a group of 25 personal trainers and PT managers recently, I posed the question; 'What makes the best trainers in your gym better than the rest?' The manager of the club shot his hand up and said with great confidence, 'The best trainers can connect and communicate with their clients'. He also said that if a client does not like you then they won't train with you, no matter how knowledgeable you are.

In the early days of the fitness industry, personal trainers usually had backgrounds in gym instruction or group exercise training. They then furthered their education in exercise techniques and physiology. They were also the people who displayed high levels of human skills: they were good with people, and participants and gym members would come to them for advice. As a result of excelling at both the exercise and the human side, these individuals evolved into the first 'personal trainers'.

Education and life experience

Of course, not everyone has excellent human skills ingrained in their personality, and this will apply to a percentage of personal trainers just as it does to people in every walk of life. However, the personal nature of what personal trainers do (the clue's in the job title!) makes it imperative that these skills be developed if they are not naturally strong. Registered Training Organisations that make it their business to certify trainers could play their part in increasing the professionalism of our industry – as well as the career prospects of their students – by assisting those who appear to lack interpersonal skills by either offering additional education or referring them to other organisations which specialise in this field (many universities and private organisations offer short courses in this area).

Many young trainers, of course, are very good at relating to clients; their enthusiasm for fitness and life can be infectious and highly appealing. But some of the most successful trainers are actually aged in their late 30s or 40s; people who have been through the ups and downs of life. Relationships, personal health and fitness challenges, mental health issues and countless other life experiences equip these trainers with enhanced skills. The best of these trainers can relate to a wide range of people, converse with them, and build a relationship based on shared experiences. Trainers who can't relate to people on any level or show empathy will struggle.


So, what are the human skills needed for the role of a personal trainer? The list is a long one, but basic core skills include;

  • Further reading

    Goleman, D: Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships; Bantam Books, 2006

    Being fully receptive to your client as a person
  • Acknowledging your client's words and feelings
  • Providing empathy
  • Being able to build rapport quickly
  • Genuinely caring for the wellbeing of your client
  • Learning to separate your personal life from your professional life
  • Seeing things from different perspectives
  • Developing the ability to interact with a diverse range of people
  • Giving your client your undivided attention
  • Consciously bringing a positive energy to every client interaction.

Without in any way detracting from the importance of technical knowledge, you must be aware that the human elements are the key to your career success. I ask every personal training manager and every successful trainer I meet the same question; 'What percentage of the personal trainer's role is physical exercise know-how, and what percentage is the mental, human side?' The standard answer is 20 per cent the former and 80 per cent the latter. By spending time improving these skills, you, your clients and your business will prosper.

Chad Timmermans
Chad is a sport and exercise psychologist with a private practice in which he specialises in consulting with personal trainers and fitness facilities. For further information on workshops and one-on-one coaching, Chad can be contacted at or 0416 113013. For more information and to read his back catalogue of articles visit