Personal Trainer Tips: How to Work With Difficult Clients

Personal Trainer Tips: How to Work With Difficult Clients

As a personal trainer or strength coach, the more clients you get the more likely it is that you will run into a few trainees that are unmotivated and have a poor attitude in the gym.

While you can only really control your own mindset, there are a few things you can try to get through to the client and help make your sessions run a bit smoother.

Shift the Focus

The first thing that I try to do when I run into a client who clearly is just not that motivated to work out is to shift their focus away from the long-term goals that seem impossible. Rather than focusing on the fact that it is going to take several months of consistent effort to lose 50 lbs. of fat and gain a certain amount of muscle, I repeatedly tell them to focus on the fact that when they exercise they feel better right now.

When we look at daunting long-term results it is very easy to get discouraged and distracted, which can eventually lead to giving up altogether. It is much more productive to focus on the immediate rewards for hitting the gym that day, which are feelings of accomplishment and the release of feel-good hormones.

When your clients are becoming overwhelmed at the thought of all their long-term goals, shift their focus to the short-term rewards.

Talk to the Real Motivator

When I worked as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach I would inevitably run into student-athletes who simply did not want to be in the gym working out. Clearly, they were only there because their coach was making them come, and regardless of what I said or did they just would not give a max effort.

Likewise, as a personal trainer and gym owner, I would consistently meet men and women who were only signing up for the gym or for training sessions to please their spouse.  Time after time around Christmas husbands and wives would sign up their spouse for training sessions that the other didn’t really want or sometimes didn’t feel like they needed.

In both of these situations, a student-athlete that is only there because of their coach or a husband who is only in a training session to please his wife, it is very difficult as a trainer to motivate the client.

If this client is only there because someone else is strongly encouraging them, sometimes the best thing to do is to talk with that person. You need to explain what is going on and how the trainee is acting and see if the person who is the true motivator can make a difference. As a coach or a spouse or a parent or whatever, they are able to hold out positive and negative incentives that you, as a neutral third party simply do not have access to.

Tough Love It Is

There comes a time when working with difficult people where you have to stop being polite and start yelling at them. Maybe not literally yelling, but you have to stop trying to tiptoe around their negative attitude and just do your thing.

Stop the small talk, don’t smile at them, and just tell them what to do in the gym. You will be amazed at how some people will respond in a positive way when you fight fire with fire. I don’t understand why some people are like this; they will only treat you with respect if you match their level of disrespect, but they are and they will.

If you’re at the point with a client that no matter how hard you try you simply cannot connect with this person because of their poor attitude, then stop trying to connect with them and just coach them. At the end of the day, clients have to want to get better and until they are willing to try to do that there’s really nothing you can do…move on.

Not every client can or will be the best client you've ever had. Not every client is a joy to work with and consistently gives their best effort.

First, try to get them to focus on the rewards of working out.

Next, talk to the person who is really motivating them in the first place.

If all else fails, take the high road but stop bending over backward to try to connect with this person, just do your job even if they aren’t completely on board.

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Matthew Johnson is a fitness writer, personal trainer, strength coach, as well as a former gym owner. Matthew holds an MBA from The University of Memphis and a Master’s in Exercise Science from Middle Tennessee State University. Matthew has also earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential from the NSCA. Matthew recently published his first book, 300 30 Minute Workouts for Busy People, and lives in Memphis, TN with his wife, Anna, and their dog Henderson, and cat, Sox.

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