At the end of the day, you’re just talking to people. You give instructions, you demonstrate exercises, you listen, you laugh, you guide with body language, you give verbal cues, you give some high-fives and then you go home. A great personal trainer is a great communicator.
One key part of communication is observation. If you walk up to someone to say, “Hi”, but see that they are on the brink of tears, you’re going to change your approach. Maybe you’ll try to make eye contact first and lower your volume when you say hello, but it is different because you observed something. Your clients have bad days – it’s a part of your job to train grumpy people (sorry if no one told you).
Observation obviously goes into watching that they have good form, looking at skin tone, shaky hands, whether they are stumbling, losing their balance or if they just need a sip of water. They want you to do the watching, you better be good at it.
One thing that really got me looking at people was when I studied how people walk and analyzing people’s different gaits. There is actually a lot going on and I found it fascinating how different each person is. Some walk mainly on the balls of their feet, some on their heels and some do all sorts of weird transitions between the two.
Being able to observe this, see that a tight hip is causing problems lower in the chain and then fix it through stretching and exercising is an extremely cool thing to do! Call me silly for getting excited, but I really enjoy being a trainer.
Some people want to talk. If you have a client that likes to talk, just listen and let her know that you have heard everything. You don’t have to even agree or disagree or get into it. Just give an appropriate response like “Oh yeah, I’m glad you made it through that!” or “Hot damn!” or “Hahaha, oh jeeze, let’s get started now, huh?”
If you don’t figure out what works for each person, it could bite you in the butt.
You are not there to speak, lecture, give dissertations, gossip or anything. You’re there to get the person through a training session. Some of my clients talked all day and this was their time to just not talk. I’d show them what to do and they would go at it with all they had.
Just imagine what an ER doctor went through that day. Or a lawyer watching their client fall to pieces because they’re losing their kids. These are the people you get and they are in whatever state they are in. Give them a good workout and don’t just blabber.
Make eye contact with people. Don’t stare at the ground while you’re listening to them. Don’t get distracted by every hot bod that walks by. And, for goodness sake, don’t check a girl out while you’re talking to her. They know. I’ve had more complaints from my clients about other trainers and office staff not looking at her eyes, but checking her out every time she walks in.
But seriously, looking someone in the eye and letting them know that you have nothing else to do in the world but listen to them is actually a rare thing. It will take you far in life. It will allow your clients to talk to you.
You really do need them to talk. Let’s say they are shy about talking about something, but because you are a steadfast listener, you are the only one that can pull it out of them. This can actually get serious. People get shy about the silliest things.
Let me give you an example: I had a client, let’s call her Sally, who had an odd ringing in her ears from time to time. I would have her do an exercise and she would randomly say that she wasn’t going to do that one. She would flat out refuse or she would make up an excuse that made no sense to me. Finally one day, I just gently said “Sally, is there something going on that I don’t know about?” And I looked her in the eye with nothing but genuine concern for her well being. She broke out in tears.
We went to a side room and she told me about some weird situation she was having with her ears and they would ring at odd times of the day. Sally didn’t know much about how the body worked, but she thought she was dying or that it was something like cancer because her mom died of cancer and so on and so on.
I helped her get set up with a doctor and the situation was very minor and she realized that she wasn’t going to die. Now, how long do you think Sally would have lived with that if I didn’t say something, and then shut up to hear what she had to say?
That brings me to my next point.
A Note on Privacy
You need a certain amount of information to do your job. It often involves asking around areas that people don’t want to talk about. You can easily hit a landmine and get some blowback from your client.
Even just an innocent question of “How much did you sleep last night?” has caused some very interesting reactions. “I only got a few hours.” “Why? What happened?” Then I get an evil glare.
I have hear it all from menstrual cramps to excess partying to having fun with their partners to having fun with someone else’s partner to fights with spouses and kids flinging poop that needed to be cleaned up.
Don’t get me wrong, you as a trainer need to have a general idea of how much your client slept the night before. Agility, balance and coordination are a few of the first things to go on an under-slept person because they are all very involved with the nervous system.
My best approach is to address it fairly straightforward. If I sense some unease in giving me information, then I’ll just let them know that I’m only asking because it affects x, y and z and I would not be doing my job if I gave them a workout from hell after they slept 3 hours. Instead, we will explore other things, like the foam roller! Or something…
The Art of Giving Orders
You should be able to give clear orders. Speak in the imperative. Don’t be afraid to tell someone to do something.
Also, understand that you should choose which words you’re going to say in advance. There is a whole art to saying the one thing that sets an athlete straight. To get a golfer to keep their head down, sometimes the cue is “See what is under the ball after you hit it.” For someone who is doing a deadlift, the phrase “Straighten your back” often doesn’t communicate but “Stick out your butt” usually flattens their back. Learn what works.
You may need to try a few variations on some people, but the right combination of words exist.
Your orders will not reach home if you’re talking to the floor or talking somewhere else in the room. You will need to speak loud enough. You will need to make sure that each syllable is pronounced.
Once you pay attention to these little details for a bit, you can forget them. But you have to at least pay attention to them at first.
Use Terms That the Person Understands
Don’t say “Extend your lumbar spine” to someone muffing up a deadlift. Say “Stick out your butt.”
If you want a young person to hold the bottom of a squat, say “Go into gorilla pose.” And their backs will be straight!
The Art of Shutting Up
You’ve got to just remain silent sometimes. People have come in spitting mad and I’ve felt more like a therapist than a fitness trainer.
Just let them have their episode and the world will be better for it. They will respect you for it. I usually give them a burly medicine ball and have them slam it on the ground as hard as possible.
And in general, if there are touchy subjects being brought up, it is best to play the part of a prude and pretend that you’re innocent to the bad ways of the world. That always worked for me.
There are all sorts of drills you can do to explore this weird world of communication:
- Try training someone with as little verbal cues as possible. Use only body language and demonstrations to get them to do the exercises.
- Try training someone with only verbal cues and no demonstrations or body language.
- Try training someone without ever looking them in the eye.
- Try cutting someone off in the middle of them speaking.
- Try speaking too loud.
- Try speaking too quietly.
You’ll learn what works and you’ll also have a greater awareness of how people respond to you. If you don’t want to do the above drills on your clients, team up with another trainer – it’s honestly a ton of fun.
Training is 99% communication.
You communicate with the clothes you wear, your posture, hair, tone of voice, where your eyes are pointed, and so many other ways.
The only way to approach this is to assume that you have something to learn and then pick one factor, bend it, break it, spin it, twist it and see what occurs. If it is a factor of volume, try speaking REALLY LOUD at someone and then really quietly. Then you’ll find out the happy medium of where it should be.
This goes just beyond the training floor, too, you know.