//What does your body language say about you?
From your hairstyle and dress code, to your posture and body language, your gym floor presence speaks volumes about you before you even open your mouth. Kris Tynan explores further.
Even when you are not communicating verbally, you are still giving out a multitude of messages and signals to those around you when you are working in the gym.
These messages come from a wide range of factors. From the clothes and jewellery you wear, and tattoos and piercings you may display, to your make-up and hairstyle, your physical appearance provides a snapshot of your professional values. Additionally, your physical behaviour says a lot about you. Your posture, the gestures you make, your facial expressions, whether or not you make eye contact, your body language, whether or not you are chewing or eating and the perfume or aftershave you are wearing all tell a story. Even your fingernails will communicate something about you.
First impressions are formed very quickly and they are incredibly tough to shake. Having made up our mind about someone, we then ‘filter’ all future experiences of them to support our initial judgement and it takes a lot to swing a negative first impression to something more positive. Appreciating this to be the case, it is even more important that we understand something about the unspoken messages we are sending.
The receiver matters
Of course the message that is received depends to a large extent on the receiver. We all make judgements according to our age, sex, experience, beliefs and cultural backgrounds. For example, I find someone who wears their hair flopping over their eyes very unprofessional – partially because clear eye contact is an important aspect of good communication. For many people however, the floppy hair look doesn’t bother them at all. It really is a matter of personal preference. The best we can do is generalise what impressions we are most likely to make on our customers and adjust our non-verbal communication accordingly.
As the following examples illustrate, there may be valid reasons why fitness professionals adopt certain positions in the gym. You might not be standing with your arms crossed to deliberately appear unwelcoming and defensive – it may just be a comfortable position for you, or maybe the air conditioning makes the temperature a bit chilly and you are trying to warm up.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the most common gym floor non-verbals.
1. Crossed arms
Why you do it: It may be comfortable or simply a habit. You may not be sure what to do with your arms, or you might just be cold.
How it comes across: Your arms are acting as a barrier between you and the other person; this is commonly recognised as closed and defensive and you can appear unwelcoming and unapproachable.
2. Hands on hips
Why you do it: You’re not sure what to do with your arms, it’s comfortable and/or a habit.
How it comes across: When you put your hands on your hips, your elbows jut out, which makes you seem larger. If you are already a large person, this may make you seem even more intimidating and aggressive. There are many examples of this in the animal world where fish, birds and mammals make themselves seem bigger and look more aggressive when under threat. Bouncers and security guards tend to adopt this type of posture, especially when faced with a potentially difficult situation.
3. The sentry position or sentry stroll (hands clasped behind back)
Why you do it: You know you shouldn’t cross your arms, so you do this instead.
How it comes across: Certainly better than the first two, but this is still rather authoritative and officious. Army and police personnel adopt this stance and supervisors walk around the back of an exam room like this. You are not in proactive contact with anyone if you find yourself habitually doing the sentry stroll. New instructors often adopt this walk when they have been told to ‘get out there and talk to members’, but they don’t really know what to do and feel uncomfortable.
4. Hands in pockets
Why you do it: Your hands might be cold and/or it’s comfortable.
How it comes across: Too casual; you’re hiding something (because your hands are hidden from view). This position conveys boredom and lack of interest.
5. Sitting down behind desk
Why you do it: You need to sit down to do admin jobs. You’re tired because you had a hard workout earlier in the day.
How it comes across: What I am doing is more important than you, the customer. This comes across as lazy. The desk serves as a barrier and hence the customer could be getting a ‘don’t bother me, I’m busy’ signal from you as well.
6. Texting, watching TV, eating, drinking coffee or reading the newspaper
What can I say? I’ll leave you to come up with your own list of how this might come across.
7. Your sleeves pulled over your hands to cover them
This seems to be a purely female habit as I have yet to spot a male instructor ever doing it. It occurs often enough, however, to be worth mentioning.
Why you do it: It might just be a nervous habit or you may have cold hands.
How it comes across: Uncertain and anxious. If you want to inspire confidence and competence, this won’t do it.
Why you do it: To keep your breath fresh, which is both admirable and desirable.
How it comes across: Unprofessional and sloppy. The better option is to use mouthwash or mints to give you ‘fresh breath confidence’.
9. Incorrect or untidy uniform, shirt hanging out, no name badge
Why you do it: You don’t like the uniform or the way you are supposed to wear it, so you are expressing your individuality.
How it comes across: Unprofessional, lack of pride in yourself and your place of employment and therefore not really a team player.
Why does all this body language matter?
- It will affect your ability to connect and communicate with your customers.
- It will affect how they respond to you.
- It will influence their view of whether you can help them or teach them anything.
- It will affect whether they feel they belong in your gym.
- It will create an impression of you for other customers who may be considering hiring you as a personal trainer.
Incidentally, these signals will be having exactly the same influence in your personal life, too, so they are worth noticing and considering.
Do a personal body language audit
Which of the nine non-verbals do you find yourself adopting habitually? If you are not sure, ask the people who work with you.
What position is the best body language to adopt?
Open, welcoming body language involves an upright stance with palms open and visible. Clearly, however, you are going to feel a bit strange walking around the gym like this. My suggestion is that the increased awareness of what you are unintentionally communicating will be enough to remind you to come out of your habitual positions when you find yourself adopting them for too long.
A final word of warning about body language
To jump to the conclusion that someone is bored or uninterested because they have their hands in their pockets would be foolish; they may just have cold hands or be checking that their house keys are there. And someone who doesn’t catch your eye might be incredibly shy or ill at ease due to cultural issues rather than not being interested in talking to you. It is therefore important to be aware of both context and clusters to help you interpret body language – that is, consider the situation and patterns of behaviour rather than just latching onto one thing.
Kris is the author of recently published The Interactive Instructor, a book full of practical advise to enable personal trainers and instructors to communicate with customers more confidently. For more information or to purchase the book at a special Network member price go to www.lightenup.co.nz/interactive-instructor
In her twenty years in the fitness industry, Kris has consistently focused on improving gym floor contact between instructors and members. She was a board member of the UK Fitness Industry Association for five years and is a regular convention presenter and fitness publication contributor. For more information or to contact Kris, go to
NETWORK • SPRING 2010 • PP 12-14