The Trainer-Client Relationship

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Q: Hey TG- I’ll keep this short and sweet.

So I’ve got a couple clients that have asked the awkward question “will I ever be able to do a pullup?” I really don’t like telling people what they can’t do. They come to me for solutions, ya know? Anyways, how do you approach the question and a)maintain their respect and b)let them know it’s not likely they’ll be able to anytime soon for valid reasons (or if at all) without damaging their psyche.

Thanks brotha! Donovan.

A: That’s an excellent question, and something I elected to answer here on the website (rather than email) as it’s something I feel a lot of personal trainers and coaches struggle with:

The Client/Athlete-Coach Relationship

I’ve always said that being a great fitness professional comes down to 50% great coaching and 50% not being an a-hole.

Lets break it down like this.

1. It’s implied that having book smarts – understanding anatomy, program design, assessment, nutrition, biomechanics, physiology, etc – is the foundation for any level of success as a fitness professional.

The other layer that many tend to gloss over, though, is the practical application of said book smarts.

Yelling isn’t coaching

In short: despite popular belief, you can’t just read about “stuff” and expect to be an expert or an authority on any given topic.

You actually have to have the ability to learn and absorb what you read, and then possess the ability to apply it into real-life situations.

This is why internet warriors are a dime a dozen. [Note: I’m not referring to you, Donovan].

Many can brag about all the books they’ve read, DVDs they’ve watched, and how many gold stars are next to their name – or, if we’re referring to the upper echelon of nerdom, weapons their Avatar has collected over the years – because they’ve accumulated 20,000 posts in some random fitness forum.1

Yet, most would fail miserably when plopped onto a gym floor and asked to coach someone through their first squat or deadlift session.

2. The other part is not being an a-hole. I think Mike Boyle was the first to crack the whip on this component of coaching – and he’s 100% spot on.

You can be the second coming of Mel Siff and sleep with a copy of SuperTraining underneath your pillow (which is weird), but if you speak down to people, make them feel stupid or inferior, and just act like a jerk all the time…no one is going to want to train with you.

Much less pay you money to do so.

Well, there’s that and some people just have no feel or are socially awkward. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, I’ve been known to choreograph at least 17 lightsaber battles per day at work; and yes, there was that one time I showed up with no pants on. But it was just once. Okay, twice.2 No biggie.

Being quirky or silly or different from time to time is one thing. That’s part of what makes different people different, and sometimes charming.

Quoting Wes Anderson movies = quirky, charming, and totally not socially awkward.

Quoting Wes Anderson movies (to a room of your invisible friends) = we need to talk.

I’ve been around some trainers and coaches who, when a 15-year old athlete does something wrong on his or her’s squat, will go off on some biomechanical diatribe on knee-valgus, Q-angle, external rotation torque, etc, and then look at the athlete afterwards as if to say “DUH, didn’t you know that?”

That’s one approach – which isn’t wrong per se. Or you could just say something like “push your knees out.”

That’s what I’m referring to when I say “having a lack of feel.”

And that’s what happens, often, when (some) trainers and coaches rely on their book smarts.


So this is a perfect scenario where both sides of the coin collide. You need to be a coach, but also a good “people person” as well.

So Here’s My Actual Answer to the Question

They hired you to be their coach, not their best friend.

This is NOT to insinuate you have to play the evil, diabolical, I have no feelings, and I-take-myself-way-too-seriously strength coach card. That’s just silly.

As you and I both know, we often develop meaningful, long-lasting relationships with many of our clients, some of which end up becoming close friends.

However, I’m not sure that “sugar-coating” things is the best approach here. Saying something along the lines of “there, there, we’ll get there soon,” won’t really accomplish anything in the long run.

It’s what I like to call this Expectation Management. 

A perfect example?

I’d like to drive a tank to work everyday, but that’s probably not going to happen.

Will your clients be able to perform a pull-up today, next week, a month from now? Probably not. And I think it behooves you to tell them that. Be honest. Take the time to explain to them why. If it’s because of a handful of postural issues, tell them. If it’s due to a past injury, tell them. If it’s because they’re just too weak and they’re just not quite at that level (yet!), tell them.

But as their coach you can re-assure them that, while you can’t promise anything, you’re going to work to the best of your ability to help them achieve their goal. And that if they follow your lead, listen to what you have to say, recognize that it’s going to require work, and stay consistent along the way, they’ll be proud of themselves no matter what the result is.

[And, most likely, they will succeed].

This way some of (if not the majority of) the onus is on them. Hopefully they’ll adopt a degree of accountability on their end and take ownership of their own actions.

In Summary

1. You’re the man (or girl). They hired YOU.

2. Don’t be an a-hole.

3. Tanks are awesome.

4. Be honest.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. 17,487 of which are in the “Off-Topic” section

  2. But really three

Comments for This Entry

  • Alex Tanskey

    Great post, Tony....I couldn't agree more. This issue is exactly what I struggled with earlier in my career, and I'd always manage to sidestep their question - but that's not what they were paying me to do! Nowadays I think of my clients as "students," which has completely changed how I approach those tough conversations and training in general. Anyway, long time reader but first time commenter - keep up the great work!

    June 25, 2015 at 4:27 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Donovan Gary Alan

    Awesome answer, Tony! I know as a young trainer I wouldn't have given as good of an answer. And to be clear, at the time of the question I answered truthfully and reassured her that working towards the goal of a pull-up would provide many benefits in the pursuit. We then switched to discuss a more suitable goal that is ACHIEVABLE. Thanks again, TG!

    June 25, 2015 at 5:46 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Right on Donovan. I had no doubts that that's the route you were gonna take. I know I ranted a little in this post, so hopefully you didn't interpret the ENTIRE thing was directed towards you...;o)

      June 25, 2015 at 7:51 pm | Reply to this comment

      • Donovan Gary Alan

        You know, I don't really mind rants. I feel like a lot of people can get some good insight on topics when people rant. And don't worry I didn't take it personal. If it's one thing I learned is that 1) you either write something and someone of importance ignores it. 2) you write something and that person reads it and they don't give a shit. 3) someone reads what you write, responds and is inspired by it. So feelings aside, if I'm able to make a difference either way I'll take it . ;)

        June 25, 2015 at 8:35 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Anne in WT

    Thanks for re-sharing Bret's video. I was actually just thinking of it the other day. I'm currently in Germany for work and the hotel I'm staying at is connected to a semi-decent gym. I was there this weekend and there was a very German blonde trainer pretty much just yelling at overweight, under-conditioned guy with zero body awareness. On the flip-side, back in the states I see many trainers at my Golds acting like best friends with their clients during their training sessions. Nothing wrong with being friends but I would want to keep the chatter to the task at hand. I wouldn't want to chitchat about a weekend BBQ or religion with a trainer/coach during a session I'm paying good money for. But maybe some people are paying for friends?

    June 29, 2015 at 6:26 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Some people are DEFINITELY paying for "friends," or at the very least (and a better way to put it, because I don't think they're LITERALLY paying for a friend) paying for more of a social hour than an actual training session. Some people stick with the same trainer FOR YEARS solely based off the fact that they enjoy the hour and they "get along." And that's fine. However, as the trainer, I ALWAYS try to make the hour count and make sure we're getting some work done. Often, if a client gets too chatty DURING A SET, I call them out on it and say something to the effect of "Hmm, must be we're not going heavy enough if you can't talk during this set," or "finish your story when you're done with your set."

      June 29, 2015 at 9:45 am | Reply to this comment

  • William Fritz

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Though I am not a trainer by any means, I have had multiple encounters with hiring the "A-hole" Personal Trainers. They are efficient at first, but a month in, majority of the time they get complacent with me and beat around the bush. I also believe it has something to do with Self-Adsorbed Narcissists who become trainers, which of course I don't get that vibe from you Tony. But seriously keep up training PT's properly, the fitness world truly needs it. Thanks again prendredelamassemusculaire

    June 29, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Reply to this comment

  • kds42

    Thanks man. As a new guy in the PT world, it was very easy for me to figure out that I can't learn this from the book. But I love the way you said it.

    June 30, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Reply to this comment

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