Subtle Tricks to Increase Motivation With Personal Training Clients

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Being married to a psychologist has it’s disadvantages:

  • I have to talk about my feelings.
  • All
  • of
  • the
  • time

There are some perks, however. Most of what “drains” me as a coach isn’t so much the x’s and o’s of writing programs or the ability to figure our what may be the root cause of someone’s shoulder pain. Those are pretty much second nature at this point in my career.

No, what drains me the most is figuring out people.

Specifically, what motivates one person to workout (and stick with it) as opposed to what makes the next person do the same?

It’s a quagmire to say the least, and often takes far too much mental gymnastics for my liking.

Autonomy = The “It” Factor to Getting Results

This is where my wife, Dr. Lisa Lewis, comes in.

Before we met, anytime I worked with someone who seemingly lacked discipline or “chutzpah” to get after it in the gym…I’d often resort to some tough love.

I’d assume (s)he didn’t want it enough and my default was to question their work ethic. I wouldn’t be a dick or anything, but I also didn’t go out of my way to demonstrate much compassion or empathy.

When my wife and I started dating I’d often bring up work with her and I’d attempt to commiserate on how this client wouldn’t work hard during their session or how that client just seemed to not care about getting results or how it just really, really sucked that I had to wear pants.

I’d be all like “what the hell!?!” and then throw a chair through a window or something, and then she’d be all like…


and then say something like:

“you know, maybe you just need to do a better job at learning about what actually motivates people?”

And this was when I was first introduced to the Self-Determination Theory.

There’s no need to go too far into the weeds. All you need to know about SDT is that it was popularized by psychologists Edward Deci & Richard Ryan and that it revolves around…

a macro theory of human motivation and personality that concerns people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. It is concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined.”

The three main components are:

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

For the sake of brevity I’m going to hone in on autonomy or the power of choice.

In short, people don’t like to be told what to do.

In the fitness industry this comes across as bit absurd given that that’s exactly why most people hire us in the first place.

However, one of the biggest changes I’ve made in my coaching philosophy – in no small part due to my wife’s nudging through the years – is working on autonomy and offering clients more choice in their programming.

It’s not only made a profound difference in helping clients stay motivated to workout, but it’s also helped to expedite their results and progress.

Here’s a few suggestions and examples.

1. Allowing Them to Choose the Main Lift of the Day

I live in a bit of a strength & conditioning bubble. Most people who start to work with me already know what they’re getting themselves into.

They’re going to lift heavy things and they’re going to listen to some EDM while doing it.


One “trick” I’ll use – especially with beginners – is to let them choose their main lift of the day. If performing some squats will fill their training love tank that day, that’s what we’ll do.

Likewise, if they want to deadlift, we’ll deadlift.

The only exercise I’ll say a hard no to is kipping pull-ups.

I’d rather them jump into a shark’s mouth.

But can you see the inherent advantage this approach provides?  If you have a client who’s having a hard time with motivation or just can’t seem to get “jazzed-up” for a particular session, maybe all you need to do is give them a bit more choice.

Assuming, of course, you’re taking into consideration their goals, injury history, and ability level.

2. Choosing the Variation of a Particular Exercise

It’s squat day.

[Cue the cacophony of moans]

Admittedly, not many people – outside of the truly masochistic – draw a sense of butterfly kisses and rainbows from squat day.

That being said, another trick to employ is to allow clients to choose what variation of a particular exercise they’re going to perform that day.


  • Box Squat
  • Back Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Goblet Squat
  • Landmine Squat
  • 2-KB Front Squat


There are many options; and we haven’t even discussed things like ladder sets, drop sets, rest/pause sets, or even tweaks that can be made with stance, tempo, or even utilizing speciality bars (SSB, Duffalo, Cambered, etc).

Giving clients some say on the variation they’re going to perform that day is a game changer in terms of creating more  “buy in” in that session.

3. Free Time

Another tactic I use often to help increase motivation is to give clients a 5-10 minute “window” at the end of their session to do whatever they want.

Most of my male clients choose to do some additional arms or “Gun Show” work.

Most of my female clients choose to do some additional glute or “badonkadonk” work.

Caucasian woman making workout at the gym

And, not coincidentally, most of the wizards I work with prefer to use their time pecifying their pecs.



All told, this approach serves as a nice compromise. So long as the client completes what’s on their program – and does what I want them to do – I am more than happy to give him or her some free time and choose their fate at the end of the session.

If they leave with a bicep or glute pump, and are happy, I am down with that.

There’s obviously a lot more that can said here, but I’ll defer to the expert on motivation, my wife!, in this case. Her popular course, Psych Skills for Fitness Pros is now offering open enrollment at $60 off the regular price.

There’s a degree of bias here, so take this however you wish…

…but THIS is the shit most fitness pros need to be educating themselves on. Yes, it’s important to know anatomy, assessment, and the intricacies of effective program design. But what really separates the good from the great is understanding people and how to navigate the human psyche.

Click HERE, choose your preferred payment method, and enter the coupon code PSYCH24 to receive your discount.

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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.

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