// Two fundamental factors for client adherence

by Chad Timmermans

Why do clients stick with personal training? Empirical research has found that there are two fundamental reasons that motivate a client to ‘stick with it’ – social support and the professionalism and awareness exhibited by their personal trainer.

Clients continue exercising in the long term for health benefits, the social aspect and for fun. During three years of research, I spoke to many personal trainers, some of them a great deal more aware than others. In answering the question of why clients stick with their training, many trainers replied that it was for weight management, fitness benefits, physical appearance, or because of an effective sales process. These are not the reasons that people continue exercising, however; rather they are reasons that people start exercising – two very different things.

People continue exercising in the long term for positive health, enjoyment, and social benefits, and research in the field of exercise psychology has found that social support is one of the major determinants of whether a client will stick with it or not. This is especially pertinent if a client relates to exercise as something to be ‘tolerated’ for health benefits.

Researchers have found that people who continue with exercise programs have more social support than people who drop out. This support may be from spouses, children, friends, work colleagues or employers. Having support and encouragement to exercise creates an environment that facilitates positive behaviour and overall success. Additionally, support specific to exercise is even more beneficial than general support. Research has found that the majority of people who continue exercising, especially during the 7 to 12 month stage, do so by exercising in groups or social situations.

Social support, especially from people you exercise with, can increase motivation, normalise anxiety about exercising, and increase self-belief. If social support is offered, not only by the personal trainer but at home or work, and from an exercise partner, then the rate of adherence will dramatically increase.

So, what can you do to help your clients and thereby increase your retention? The best way to increase your clients’ likelihood of continuing with exercise is to help them create an environment where exercise is easy and enjoyable. Methods of achieving this include:

• enlisting the client’s family in their exercise ‘homework’ so that they are actively involved in the client’s program
• encouraging the client to exercise with friends, or take up a fun sport such as tennis, squash, mixed netball, indoor soccer or Oztag
• establishing whether the client’s workplace has an exercise program or allows time for exercising and, if so, encouraging their participation.

By surrounding your client with family, friends and work colleagues who will support, encourage and exercise with them, they will feel less anxious and more capable. If you had the choice of running on a treadmill for one hour, or exercising with a group of friends, which one would you choose?

Ask yourself:
• What am I already doing to help clients develop social support?
• How else could I help them to develop social support networks?
• Do I know any trainers who are fantastic at getting their clients to develop social support? Could I ask them to mentor me in this area?
• What ways could I make my sessions more fun for clients? And what do my individual clients evaluate as ‘fun’ (what
one client finds fun, another may not!).

Helping to create the social support that your clients need to adhere to exercise will make your job much easier and increase retention.


In addition to social support, the trainer also plays a huge role in the exercise adherence of their clients. In his book The Psychology of Exercise, Stuart Biddle states that ‘the personal trainer may be the single most influential factor for client adherence’.

The moment you start to think that you have all the skills and knowledge you need is the moment you start to let your clients down. If you don’t provide your clients with what they require then they won’t adhere and your retention rate will go down. Asking yourself how you can increase adherence will prompt you to look for new areas of your service to develop, and for areas in which to assist your clients further.

There are many ways to develop professionally as a personal trainer. You can learn how to communicate better, learn better technique, advance your knowledge of physiology or learn something more about nutrition. But what about the key component that every client you have ever worked with has experienced – you?

Question time
How are you developing yourself personally? Have you started on the journey that is not for the faint hearted, the journey that looks inward into why you do the things you do? Such a journey starts by asking yourself some searching questions. Why do you like some of your clients and dislike others? Why do you find it hard to deal with clients who won’t engage? Why do you find working with females easier than males, or vice versa? And why is dealing with money a challenge for you?

These culminate in the big question, why are you in this profession? This in turn prompts you to ask where your motivation really comes from, and whether you are genuinely here to help others. An unconscious factor present in a lot of helping professions is a desire to save people, which may be a reflection of your craving to save or fix yourself. Or perhaps, more simply, you are a personal trainer because you enjoy the status and the power you have to improve others lives.

There are ways to bring these unconscious motives to the surface in order to explore and understand them. Doing so allows you to understand yourself better and have better control of yourself. As a personal trainer you are your own product, so if you have ‘issues’, hang ups or ‘baggage’, then you should actively engage in working on these. Doing personal development courses, talking to a psychologist or becoming a reflective practitioner are options which may help. Bringing your motives and barriers to the surface can increase the likelihood of your clients getting the most from training with you, and thereby aid retention.

This may all sound rather daunting, but looking into this sort of stuff, i.e. yourself, can start to reveal what drives you and influences you unconsciously. The example below shows you how to do it. Basically, you repeatedly ask the question ‘why?’
Let us say that you ask yourself the question ‘why do I want to be a personal trainer?’ What comes up could be that you like who you are when you are training someone else, it makes you feel good and it makes you think positively about yourself when others like you. You then ask ‘why do I like it when others like me?’ You realise that you don’t like it when people don’t like you or when you look bad. The flip-side of this is that you like to look good. Then you have a light bulb moment and realise that you have a need to look good. Don’t worry, most people do!

So, in the end, you discover that your motivation for being a personal trainer is to look good. If you can keep your need to look good and your need for attention present in your mind, then you can start to recognise what it influences, where your need to look good controls you. If you can bring to the surface such unconscious influences, then you have the possibility of operating free from such influence or needs. If you can do this, your clients will experience a more genuine, and more empathetic trainer who is there for them, rather than being preoccupied with themself. This can result in clients trusting and liking you more, getting more out of working with you and ultimately adhering to exercise better.

Ask yourself why you like the clients you like, why you dislike the clients you dislike and why you want to be a personal trainer. Continue asking why until an answer arises.

By addressing the issues of social support and your own motivations, you can become a better trainer and offer a great service that will boost clients’ results and your retention. 


Chad Timmermans
Chad is a provisional psychologist with a private practice in Melbourne focusing on exercise and sport psychology. He is completing the research element of his masters degree in sport psychology and specialises in consulting with gyms and personal trainers on how to provide better services for their clients. For more information, call 0416 113013 or e-mail

NETWORK • WINTER 2008 • PP29-31