5 Relationship-building Strategies for Personal Trainers

The relationship exercise professionals have with their clients is a vital element of their clients’ success, and of the professional’s ability to build and sustain a business. A professional can have all the exercise science and anatomy knowledge in the world, but if their clients don’t feel a connection with them and have a positive and enjoyable experience during their time together, retaining clients will be a struggle. Here are five strategies that exercise professionals can use to build those relationships, starting from the very first time they meet. 

  1. Build Rapport and Use Empathy 

Relationship building is all about building rapport and demonstrating empathy. This is especially true with newcomers to the facility, who may walk through the door with some trepidation and doubt. Building rapport, which is defined as a relationship of trust and mutual understanding, is an ongoing process throughout any relationship, but it is particularly important during the initial sessions with a new client.  

An exercise professional can accomplish this early on by having positive and thoughtful interactions rooted in empathy, which involves understanding another person’s experiences from their perspective. The following strategies all connect back to this first one and will help create those positive interactions. 

  1. Connect Clients’ Goals to Their Values 

Connecting physical activity to a client’s values can be challenging, but it can make a tremendous difference in the relationship with that client, their perception of the workouts together and their long-term adherence to the program.  

Imagine, for example, that an exercise professional has a client whose primary goal is to lose weight. By asking why and digging a little deeper, the pro finds out that weight loss is important to them because they have a family history of heart disease, recently welcomed their first grandchild and are anxious about being able to keep up with an active toddler in a couple of years. Now, instead of a vague weight-loss goal and a somewhat distant health-related fear, the exercise professional can focus their workouts and cues on the ability to lift a growing child, get up and down from the floor and perform other movements that directly relate to that underlying value. This is a much more positive and empowering framework than one that focuses on the distant threat of heart disease. 

In addition, the professional has gotten to know the client a little better and now has a topic of conversation that can lead to better rapport and a deeper connection. 

  1. Use the ACE Mover Method™ and ACE ABC Approach™ 

Positive client–personal trainer relationships are the foundation of the ACE Mover Method and ACE ABC Approach. These two resources were developed to help exercise professionals empower their clients to make healthier lifestyle choices, and that begins with building rapport and taking a truly personalized approach.  

For exercise professionals who work one-on-one with individuals, the ACE Mover Method is implemented through the use of the ACE ABC Approach, which begins with an understanding that clients are the foremost experts on themselves.  

With that in mind, the ACE ABC Approach begins by Asking open-ended questions. Powerful questions can elicit thoughtful responses from the client that allow you to understand them—and why they chose to work with you—a little bit better. Step 2 involves Breaking down barriers, which is accomplished by asking probing questions to discover what obstacles may get in the way of the client reaching their goals. Finally, step 3 involves Collaborating to set SMART goals and establish action steps toward achieving those goals.  

This collaborative process is absolutely vital to the client–professional relationship, as it can empower the client to take ownership and become more invested in the process. 

  1. Use OARS to Improve Your Conversational Skills 

OARS is an abbreviation for a set of conversational skills comprised of asking Open-ended questions, offering Affirmations, Reflective listening and Summarizing, which can be used to elicit the client’s motivation and wisdom. The goal is to leave the decision to change a behavior in the hands of the client, rather than the professional directing them on what to do. 

Here is a quick example of how a professional might use OARS during an exercise session: 

  • Open-ended questions: Ask questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Good starts to open-ended questions include: “What…”, “How…” and “Why…” 

  • Affirmations:Acknowledge a client’s successes, strengths, abilities and positive efforts. 

  • Reflective listening: State back to the client what you heard them say and allow the client the opportunity to clarify and/or elaborate. 

  • Summarizing: Recap two or more ideas or thoughts the client shared, as you understand it. 

Never overlook the importance of having fun. Nothing creates enthusiasm and a desire to return to the gym more than having a good time. Opportunities to laugh, smile and connect can foster a sense of camaraderie between the professional and the client, as well as between the client and other people exercising nearby. Small efforts in this area can yield big benefits, as the client becomes more comfortable with both the exercise professional and the fitness facility. So, an exercise professional should never be afraid to add some humor and keep things loose, even as they encourage their clients to push themselves and work hard. 

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