Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner - or My Client in a Box

Patrick Swayze made the line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” famous when he stood up for his girlfriend as her parents tried to suppress her individuality in the famous coming of age film, Dirty Dancing.

And now, in a much smaller venue, I take the same stand for personal training clients everywhere. While most trainers today tend to agree about the “personal” element of personal training and that we need to customize programs to each client individually, many still subscribe to the school of thought that clients with common goals can follow the same diet and exercise regimen and that their bodies will respond the same way.

If it were that simple, I would look like a supermodel by now.

It’s not uncommon to find personal trainers becoming frustrated with their clients when their bodies don’t tighten, slim down, or achieve the desired muscle tone as a result of a trainer-prescribed diet and workout routine, especially when that diet and routine proved successful for others who had similar goals. Some even become frustrated, thinking their clients aren’t committed to the result. After all, one of our common pet peeves is realized when we are committed to clients who are not committed to themselves.

However, it can also be the case that a client is simply constructed differently from others. Differences can be seen in many places-- from metabolism to hormones to heredity. This doesn’t mean the client is precluded from achieving the desired result, however it could take more time and different programming to make it happen.

As trainers, it is part of our responsibility to check in frequently with our clients to determine level of motivation, which can fluctuate. Even clients with the best of intentions and the highest level dedication can be temporarily thwarted by that pesky thing we call life. Anything can cause a temporary negative impact on the training effect-- from a job change to difficulties in the home, the marriage, or with children, to caring for an elderly relative, a death in the family, or even pressures from unsupportive families and friends. Our personal training certification courses teach that although transactionally our relationships with clients are professional, part of our roles as trainers is to have our fingers on the pulse of what is going on in their lives so that we can tailor their diets and workouts accordingly(1).

And how do we come to find out what is going on? Simply put, we earn their trust by proving ourselves trustworthy. We check in frequently with our clients and always always always treat them with empathy and respect, realizing that like us, they are not perfect, and working to understand the root causes of anything that could be impacting their success. Since most of us are not psychologists or medical doctors, we can operate within our locus of control by treating our clients with understanding and by proactively changing their routines to help motivate around whatever is throwing them off-course.

As a new trainer, I continue to grow my own skills in this field, and am learning a great deal from each client. While they all have separate goals and objectives and distinct training plans, they share the common thread of being first and foremost human, thereby dealing with many similar human struggles. By acknowledging and working with their circumstances, and by remaining consistently--albeit realistically--positive, respectful, and understanding as well as dedicated, honest, and direct, we can reap the benefits of clients who look forward to their workouts and who stick to their workouts and diets and who enjoy the process itself. Achieving the desired result is just icing on the cake.

Thanks to Patrick Swayze and Dirty Dancing for reinforcing an important lesson about the human condition. Oh, and in reference to another line made famous by the mass media, I’m not only a personal trainer. I’m also a client.

(1) Note that a Nutrition Specialist or similar certification is recommended before providing nutrition advice to a healthy client while a medical degree or dietician registration is required in most states to prescribe nutrition for medical problems.

Photo credit: Hephaestus Audio
Research Credits: Thanks to my many personal training colleagues and clients who contributed their candid thoughts and insights to this article.

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