Unless you are prepared to be honest with fat loss clients about the reality of what they need to do for sustained success, you’ll be wasting your time and theirs, says Dinny Morris.
When a potential fat loss client walks through the door, a professional trainer has to assess a host of criteria before they even agree to work with them. The first question should never be ‘how do I help this client lose weight?’ but, ‘why is this person here, what is their internal motivation and how can I help them on their journey to sustained long term weight loss?’
Many things need to be noted to a client before you start working with them, such as the difference between fat loss and weight loss, the need to understand scale weight, biomechanical issues that may require remedial work, and the fact that they will need to train by themselves as well as with you.
You should also give them an overview of carbohydrates, fats, calories and protein, crash diets, muscle mass, bone health, and body type and genetics (for when clients compare themselves to Instagram fitness celebrities).
Failure to clearly define the process before you start working with a client will more often than not result in them not reaching, let alone sustaining, their goals.
No client, no pay – that’s the reality for PTs. The urge to do everything you can to convince prospects to train with you is understandable, but resist selling them a fantasy unless you’re willing to also tell them the reality of what they’ll need to do to achieve it.
Ask yourself, are you just selling a service or are you going to help this person – and more importantly, are they ready for the change that is needed? The weight loss journey is tough, and if they aren’t prepared to buy into that, then it won’t work: the client will repeatedly miss sessions, wasting your time when you could be training other clients.
People need to know the truth in order to truly make the change that they want to see.
Know your client’s motivation for weight loss
To understand their true motivation, you need to put them at ease. When you ask what their goals are, they’ll most likely say ‘tone’, ‘shape’, ‘lose weight’ or ‘lose fat’. It’s up to you to tease out what it really is they are trying to achieve, and more importantly, why. What’s their internal or external motivation? Why do they think they’ve gained weight and got to the position they are currently in (and are they owning up to it or avoiding it?) You’ll often find a client tries to guide the conversation away from nutrition, or tries to avoid taking measurements.
What do they think they should do to address that? What needs to change in their personal life? Are they willing to change their lifestyle or tackle underlying problems? Or do they just want to use you to chat to and help them out-train their bad diet (that they have no intention of changing)?
Don’t make assumptions
Regardless of whether a client is completely new to training, or coming to you after having trained with another PT, never make assumptions about them or their physical, stability and biomechanical abilities. Start from scratch and create your own learnings about your client.
This includes nutrition: you need to know exactly what, when and how they are eating, and dropping the, ‘Don’t bullsh*t me’ line will let the client know you don’t have time for messing around. You must know the truth so can best help them.
Setting professional boundaries / engagement agreement
When I started in this industry, I found it very difficult to establish professional boundaries. Because I didn’t want to be rude, and was not 100 per cent sure about guiding in-session conversation, I didn’t know how to respond to clients who wanted to socialise with me.
The nature of our job means we invest a lot of time and emotion in our clients, but keeping your relationship strictly professional ensures they understand exactly where the client/trainer boundaries lie. Don’t get me wrong, I have long term professional relationships with my clients, but I’m not going out for dinner or coffee with them unless it’s a timed coaching session. At the end of the day, the client should be there because they want to get results, not hang out with you and be your best friend. In my opinion, after hours contact is a complete no-no. It’s best to set these boundaries from the get-go, and be confident that you aren’t being rude by doing so.
If you think you may have an issue with a client, don’t hesitate to speak to your club management. Trust your gut instincts and shut down a potential issue before it escalates.
I have an Engagement Agreement with every client. This formal document sets out what is to be expected of me as their personal trainer and of them as my client. It covers payment, being late for sessions, realm of practice and so on.
When a new client recently told me that he was experiencing ongoing pain, I referred him to my physio. It turned out he had an impinged nerve. It also turned out that his previous trainer had had him performing box jumps – which would have aggravated this condition.
When a client has biomechanical or structural issues, you need to educate them on the need to address these issues, and get them to agree to spend a certain percentage of their training time doing so. This can be a difficult ‘sale’ when a client is eager to achieve weight loss in the quickest possible time, as they may be reluctant to ‘waste’ time on activities that they don’t perceive as directly contributing to their goal. Paint the bigger picture for the client and let them know that by giving them what they need as well as what they want, you will be positioning them to achieve and sustain their long term goal. You would never build a house on quicksand and we all know that intensity is needed to achieve fat loss.
Weight loss planning
Everyone is unique and requires a plan that works for them, their life and their work commitments. When you take the time to understand their situation and tailor a plan to suit them, then good things can happen.
Be prepared to be flexible. Clients have busy, ever-changing lives, so be willing to adapt their training accordingly: a little progress is still progress. Don’t over-stress an already stressed client with too much training and overcomplicating a simple process.
Educating clients to help themselves
One of the biggest challenges many PTs face is getting clients to go to the gym outside of their PT sessions. This requires you to educate them about all the factors that will affect their weight loss journey – including building habits that support their goal, such as integrating exercise into their daily life. Clients need to understand that if they do not undertake the process fully it can do more harm than good (i.e. lose some weight in the short term, fall off the wagon and then regain that weight and more).
Sending articles for them to read or constantly drilling them with simple ‘drink water’ or ‘eat breakfast’ messages is not always beneficial. Everyone’s level of education about weight loss differs; some want to really understand the process, some want to ‘do more process’, but one thing they need to know is that there are a lot of ways to lose body fat but only one way to make it stick, which is to ‘be the change they want to see’. Don’t baffle them with terminology they may not understand, but do regularly remind them of the big picture benefits that establishing certain behaviours can have.
Complexities of weight loss
Weight loss isn’t straightforward – sometimes the scales go up and sometimes they go down. It’s a complex puzzle that needs to be worked out between the client and the trainer.
Talk to your client about these fluctuations: tell them about muscle mass, fat mass, adipose and subcutaneous tissue, and bone health. Explain scale weight vs body fat vs fat mass, and educate females about their menstrual cycle and why their weight can go up around this time. Try and help the client develop a healthy body image and to understand that eating better and moving more is also about health, not just the way they look in the mirror.
Get a team
Some people lack a support network, so helping to build one around them will increase their chances of success. For example, you may refer the client to a dietitian that has had success with emotional eaters or people locked in the weight loss and regain cycle. Some individuals may require a psychologist to help them address their relationship with food. You may also suggest that a client include a group exercise class or small group training in their program, so that they benefit from training variety and the support of others in the group.
There are no magic pills
Don’t create a magic pill mentality. No supplement is as strong as nutritional change and exercise.
Don’t over-complicate matters by adding supplements. This is potentially overstepping your realm of practice and, personally, I consider it ethically wrong for PTs to sell supplements. I’ve heard of liver issues and vitamin D toxicity, so be cautious. A doctor may spend a decade or more to become specialised in an area such as human hormones, so I say leave this sort of things to a qualified industry professional.
Nutrition and fad diets
As we know, fad diets do not work. There is no quick fix. But so many clients come to us having tried ketogenic, paleo, juicing, weight loss shakes, the list goes on. They may feel like they are working at first, but they don’t in the long term. Clients need to follow a normal, balanced eating pattern. They need to be able to eat carbs and have some sugar in their diet – and to know that it is only when these food groups are misused that weight gain occurs.
Some people know what to eat and what not to eat – but knowing isn’t always enough, and they will either need someone to coach them through the process and be an accountability partner, or someone to set guidelines for them to follow. Being too restrictive for any weight loss client, however, can cause them to quit altogether. Keep it simple and achievable for them by adopting the stance that a little here and there won’t kill you – but a whole lot will. Keep it simple for them.
Part of your role is to educate your clients about healthy nutrition and meal planning (without stepping into nutritionist or dietitian territory). Ask yourself if they need help making healthier choices; do they need you to accompany them to the supermarket, for instance? Do they require a dietitian who specialises in weight loss clients that need to get out of the weight loss, weight gain cycle?
Make sure that they are well aware that what they put in their mouth matters – and that they can’t out-train a bad diet.
I find alcohol is the biggest enemy of weight loss for many clients – particularly professionals whose lifestyles require them to take long client lunches and social events. They need to know that drinking too much alcohol will slow their journey down considerably.
Attitude to change
As a trainer there is only so much that you can do to help your clients: you are not a god, you are there to coach them externally, motivate them and give constructive feedback. To succeed in their goal, they have to be committed and want it 100 per cent. The stronger their intrinsic motivation, the more empowered they will be to achieve sustainable weight loss.
This requires the overweight or obese client to understand why they got into the physical condition they are in. People use alcohol, food or other substances to distract from a career they don’t like, a bad relationship that they feel locked into, or any number of other reasons – but they might need help realising this.
Discuss the cycle of weight loss with your client: they must want to pull themselves out of it, and the only way to do that is through changing their mental and physical behaviours. Make it clear that if they want results then they need to have total commitment and compliance to eating healthily and training outside of booked sessions.
Environmental factors, including the people around them, play a huge role in affecting their behaviour. Help your client identify the ‘pushers’ and ‘pullers’ in their life. The pusher is the one that supports them 100 per cent to get results and change; the puller is the one who wants them to fail and to drag them back down to their previous bad habits.
Be aware that you may not be able to help your client unearth their motivations on your own; they may need to engage other health professionals such as a dietitian, psychologist or life coach.
Be the change
As their trainer, your aim should be to get your client to become self-reliant and go to the gym of their own accord.
You can certainly spark their fire and give them the feedback that will ensure it stays lit, but it starts with them. I always tell my clients that I will only ever give them constructive feedback. I’m not here to boost their self-esteem, they have to find that within themselves. But I will give them my full support and the tools to help them become ‘master of their own destiny’.
Helping someone realise their potential is an exciting thing; make sure they know that you want them to succeed, but that they have to be open and honest with you. If they slip up on the journey, be understanding: if they trust you, then you can help them reduce the chance of it happening again.
Your fat loss client has come to you because they are trying to lift themselves out of a place they don’t want to be in. By supporting, educating and empowering them, you will give them every chance to reach their goals and stay healthy for life.
Dinny Morris is a Sydney-based personal trainer who trains clients of all ages and abilities. He is passionate about helping individuals get into the best shape of their lives, and motivating them to enjoy the things they really care about. dinnymorrisfitness.com.au