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Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of American Fitness Magazine.

When I first became a personal trainer some 14 years ago, I was obsessed with corrective exerciseand movement perfection. Prospective clients watched as I geeked out on every nuance of the impeccable squat. Once they became clients, they’d undergo extreme scrutiny while performing a squat as I lectured them—oblivious to their glazed-over eyes—on the dangers of knee valgus and ankle pronation.

Despite my enthusiasm, I struggled to convert prospects into clients. Many who did hire me would disappear into the ether, often long before their package was finished. While my desire to help others move well was commendable, my early experience taught me two valuable lessons about coaching, program design and client retention:

1. I had failed to adequately relay to clients my why for the program and how my choices would help them reach their goals.

2. I had failed to create programs that balanced the client’s interests with what I thought was best for them.

In the end, my failure to focus on the why of training cost me clients and sales. Had I paid better attention to my clients’ expressions and body cues, I might have clued into the fact that they weren’t getting from the sessions what I wanted them to get.

Has something similar happened to you? Have you lost clients or struggled to turn consults into sales? Your programming may have something to do with it.


There are many reasons program choices drive clients away. Perhaps your sessions or classes are too complicated, too boring (as mine were) or too generic. Maybe your clients can’t stand jumping jacks, mountain climbers or burpees and would rather fire you or take a different class than do another rep.

Albuquerque, New Mexico–based Chris Frankel, PhD(c), head of human performance for Fitness Anywhere, recalls a time when he put a client through a workout that was too intense. “I remember one person who was so sore the following 3 days after the workout that [this person was] tapped out,” he says. “That was all on me.”

Jack Wheeler, founder and CEO of 360 Fitness in Red Deer, Alberta, says that a specific session probably hasn’t caused a client to quit, but that information overload could have led to some attrition over the long term. “Maybe the client should have stuck to the basic movements or was overwhelmed with apps and homework,” Wheeler says. “In the end, they probably should’ve just eaten more veggies and worked out more.”

Both Wheeler and Frankel say that these mistakes could have been avoided by focusing more on what the clients wanted to achieve—and how to help them succeed. Essentially, programming is about making sure that every choice has a clear and direct reason behind it and that your clients understand those reasons.

“Programming is a critical part of every fitness professional’s business,” Frankel says. “It is where science, craft and brand intersect to help create the member/client/athlete experience. People are coming to you with their most prized possessions: mind and body. If you’re not practicing your craft with a why in mind, it’s probably time to look for a new career.”

Wheeler adds: “Just like all things in business where your projects and tasks need to align with your mission or you just spin your tires, each program should have a goal and objective attached to it.” Read on to learn what our experts do to make sure they stay laser-focused on the why behind the what.



It’s happened to many of us. We head to a workshop or conference; get excited about new training methodologies, exercises and tools; and then unload everything onto clients when we get back to the gym.

“Oh, conference syndrome—how we have all fallen victim to the bells, whistles and flash that come with it,” admits Matt Wright, MS, head of community and education at Aktiv®. “Conferences/events/workshops are all great, but just sitting in a 60-minute lecture by no means qualifies you as an expert or prepares you to translate what you learned to clients.”

Frankel loves attending educational events and learning about what’s new and cutting edge, but he doesn’t always apply the information.

He says, “I hear a lot of good ideas that I may never use—not because I don’t think they work, but because they don’t fit in with my approach or I am not experienced enough to use them properly. The best advice I can give to a fitness pro is to have a training philosophy that you constantly refine and to filter new ideas and topics through that lens.”

On the other side of the coin, Wheeler suggests selecting educational events with your clients in mind. “Many coaches perceive more value in learning the 99th way to do a squat than they do in solving real-life problems for [a] client,” he says. “Pros need to figure out what their clients actually need and get better at that, [rather] than just padding the stats on their business cards.”


Rose Calucchia, NASM-certified personal trainer and business coach in Santa Cruz, California, creates programs after doing a deep dive on the client’s motivation.

“The reason someone wants to hire a trainer can sometimes be tricky to figure out,” she says. “It might sound obvious when someone says, ‘I want to lose some weight.’ But if you ask why they want to lose weight, you’ll probably get more insight into what the person is really looking for.”

Once you uncover the underlying driver for weight loss, you can refine your approach to help clients get to where they want to be. “It’s important to find out what the motivator is, because that will inform how you program for that person and also how to make recommendations for other lifestyle changes,” Calucchia says.

Wright adds that your programs should also strike a balance between what you know your clients need and what they want to get out of the session. “Let’s say a client comes in and wants to lose weight but may have tight shoulders or limited hip range of motion. If I then tell this client we have to spend 30 minutes doing correctives, it will become a deterrent. They want to sweat; they want to be challenged and get all of the positive effects of exercise.”


So, how do you tell if your sessions are turning people off? Watch for signs, say experts.

Frankel says common indicators that clients are displeased include showing up late and/or leaving early, appearing unmotivated, not interacting with you or others in the group, or asking questions about why they aren’t seeing results.

“Pay attention to them during breaks,” adds Wright. “What’s their body language? What’s the tone? Think of being a coach on a timeout in a game or match. You have to look at your team and the other team to see who’s ready for the next quarter and who’s ready for their after-match shower.”


When all is said and done, the best way to understand if your programs hit or miss the mark is to ask.

“We always overthink things and think we know what’s best for our clients all the time,” Wheeler says. “In reality, we didn’t ask them what they need help with in the first place.”

Wright agrees and adds, “Too often we try to ‘figure them out’ when we can simply ask for their feedback. No, you can’t please everyone, but you can take their feedback to enhance the experience you provide.”

Wheeler has found that one of the most successful tools for understanding client wants and needs is a survey that includes questions about their experiences at the gym, what they tell others about those experiences, their goals and more. He also asks respondents about their hobbies, physical activity outside of sessions and shopping habits. In these surveys, respondents have the option to either remain anonymous or submit a name and receive a participation reward.


Every coach has his or her unique way of communicating with others. However, in the same way that you choose specific exercises to meet the unique needs of each individual client, so, too, should you individualize the words you use, says Calucchia.

You may be capable of going on and on about anatomy and structural function, but if telling your client to engage his lats elicits a blank stare, you could be negatively affecting his experience. “One of the mistakes I see trainers make when it comes to programming is overcomplicating things and not explaining their programming in terms the client can understand,” she says. “Most of us love to geek out on the newest techniques and use terms that are over most gym-goers’ heads. Not only can this be super-intimidating for clients, but it can also be a turnoff to working with you.”

When all is said and done, each movement, sequence and tempo in your program should have a purpose or you run the risk of decreasing your clients’ or participants’ success potential, reducing retention and weakening your bottom line.

Calucchia summarizes the best advice she was given on this topic: “A previous boss of mine said, ‘If you can’t tell a client why you’ve chosen each and every exercise in their program, then chances are slim they’ll see you for more than a complimentary session.’ After that insight, I was able to sell a lot of personal training quite quickly and retain clients long-term simply by explaining the why behind each exercise and how it related back to the client’s goals.”