Progress forward towards any fitness or health goal looks different for each individual client. That’s to be expected. No two clients are the same, therefore they will not respond the same even to similar approaches. However, fitness clients, though different from each other, can experience similar barriers, or manifest “progress preventers”.
When I teach personal training students about client barriers, I refer to these specific three as the progress preventer trio. If a fitness client experiences one (or more) of these barriers, one of two things generally occur. One, the client is prevented from moving forward on their intended path. Or, two, the barrier the client encounters forces them into a continuous “always starting over” trap. All three barriers are related to the client’s mindset rather than a physical limitation or behavior.
Progress Preventer #1: The All or Nothing Mindset
This first barrier is a beast that requires a battle, and it is more common than you might believe. The “all or nothing” mindset is a cognitive distortion, or an irrational and harmful thought pattern that interferes with an individual’s progress toward their goal. This type of irrational thought pattern only serves to reinforce the negative feelings. Ultimately, this thought process alters the way our clients see events or relate to experiences they have. In the industry, we sometimes refer to this as seeing things in only “black and white”.
Clients who experience this will often make statements like the following:
· I already ate a handful of chips, so I might as well have more.
· I either do well, or I fail.
Do you see the “this or that” thinking reflected in these statements? Both are unproductive and do not support the client in moving forward. As exercise professionals, we have to coach our clients and help them discover why these thought patterns are present and how to reframe them.
If you have clients who experience this, encourage them to journal or track negative thoughts and statements that reflect the “black and white” mentality. Part of helping clients overcome this is teaching them to identify when it happens. You can also empower clients to rephrase their negative thought patterns and statements. This might mean you spend part of a session or dedicate a separate session to working through your clients’ thoughts together. Be sure to respond with empathy and reflect back to the client what you hear them say.
Progress Preventer #2: “Good” vs “Bad” Mindset
This barrier is thanks to diet culture dogma. Foods are either good or bad, in this culture. For example, a slice of pizza is “bad” but a grilled chicken breast with veggies is “good”. A slice of pizza is more energy-dense and less nutrient-dense, while a grilled chicken breast with veggies is more nutrient-dense and less energy-dense. Both food options have a place in a balanced diet. Here, we must extend patience to our clients as they experience diet culture detox. It’s language and phraseology we all constantly hear from insta-influencers, magazines, and other less-than-credible sources.
Food is neither good nor bad. Food is a source of fuel, joy, and celebration. It does not have moral value and we must make conscious efforts to teach clients what various foods have to offer and how to consume them in harmony. Share credible sources with your clients and engage thoughtfully in conversations about diet culture and the harmful messages (and images) it espouses.
Progress Preventer #3: Hyper-fixation with Weight Loss Mindset
The third, and probably the most common, of the progress preventers is a focus on the outcome. The outcome is usually weight loss (and not fat loss – there’s a significant difference). As professionals, we know the number on the scale is mostly meaningless in absence of other pieces of the “wellbeing” puzzle. But our clients may not (again, thank you diet culture). Here’s where we have an opportunity to encourage meaningful goal-setting focused on the process (or behaviors) clients can follow that will eventually result in the outcome they hope to achieve.
Examine the example below.
“I want to lose 20 pounds by summer.” This reflects an outcome or a result. But we only achieve outcomes if we engage in a process, so the deeper question to ask a client who says this (or something similar) is, “can you share with me the why and how behind your goal?”. This is where strong motivational interviewing skills come in handy! Hopefully, engaging your client in a conversation about the results they want, you and your client will identify the why (i.e., more energy and increased vitality) and the how (i.e., by managing portions and moving mindfully on four or more days a week). After the conversation, you can guide your client in effective goal setting that focuses more on the how (process) than the what (product or outcome).
The below four questions will help guide your conversation:
1. What do you want to achieve (specificity)?
2. How will you know you achieve the goal (metrics)?
3. What is a reasonable timeline (achievable)?
4. What is important about this for you (shows personal meaning and relevance)?
No doubt, our many clients will encounter a steady stream of progress preventers – barriers beyond their (and your) control. That’s expected in any journey toward somewhere new. But we can help our clients modify these barriers and turn them into opportunities to succeed.