Created by Arnas Dilys. 
Arnas Dilys is founder of ironGAINS: Weight Training Log that enhances trainee success. In this article he talks about the most under appreciated aspect of a personal training service - behavioral change, and how it relates to the success of a personal training business.


How to achieve success as a personal independent trainer?



I would like to start with this question: how can we define a personal trainer service? "A personal trainer is an individual certified to have a varying degree of knowledge of general fitness involved in exercise prescription and instruction. They motivate clients by setting goals and providing feedback and accountability to clients", as stated on Wikipedia (1). Perhaps you wouldn't judge me too harsh, if I would assume that Wikipedia may reflect conventional perception of a personal trainer service. 

If we want to further explore the definition of a personal training service, we could browse public opinions on Quora.com (2), Reddit.com (3), Facebook.com (4) or Linkedin.com (5) and similar patterns will come up again: workout & nutrition plan, motivation, accountability, instructions on how to perform exercises. 

The conventions seem to be such that personal training service lacks one tremendous component - the application of behavior change. To support this statement I will quote James J. Annesi, Ph.D., an exercise and sport psychology consultant and researcher: "The standardized, step-by-step nature of the present cognitive behavioral treatment system also appeared advantageous for the exercise leaders who, generally, had physiological, rather than behavior change, backgrounds" (6).

So how this conclusion could relate to a successful business of independent personal trainer? Workout and nutrition plans, instructions on how to perform certain movements, supervision are just part of the whole picture. Behavior change is a component that amplifies the effect of all other training service aspects. It is engine that encourages customers to reach their fitness goals and succeed. This is the basis for a personal trainer service. Your clients don't need another workout or diet plan. They want to become stronger, healthier, sexier and more confident. That is how success looks to a personal trainer client. 

If most of your customers succeed with your service, your service will differentiate and set your business apart from competition. In addition, successful customers will create word of mouth and will bring you new prospects.


How to ensure your clients succeed?


"At its core, that's what Customer Success (CS) is all about: ensuring your customers achieve their desired outcome while using your product." - Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight (7).
This sentence contains important keywords: customers, desired outcome and product. Who is your customer and what problem does your product solve? Without the answers, frustration may arise when trying to attract the right customer.

Let's start with the problem that leads to the customer and desired outcome. Direct way to define a product is to think about the specifics of a personal trainer service. Are you a personal trainer who focuses on muscle growth? If that's the case, you will probably need 25-45 year old men, who aim to become more muscular. Or is your service focused on preventing muscle atrophy and bone loss in the elderly? For this case, you will encounter a different customer and desired outcome.

Knowing who your customer is, what problem does your product solve and what is desired outcome, you will know how to talk with your potential clients. 

But that's not enough. In order to ensure customer success, you will need to identify which of your prospects are prone to succeed. "Your goal is not just target customers that are ready, willing, and able to use your product, but also to identify upfront which customers have the highest probability of achieving success with your product." - Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight (7).  



How to identify which of your prospects are prone to succeed?


Be selective. It's difficult to achieve desired outcome of a personal trainer service. It depends heavily on customer itself, although personal trainer is the one who is responsible for the result. So yes, be picky. 

In order to predict which prospects are prone to succeed, information needs to be gathered. 
First, you are able to get interest from the right people by building marketing strategy. With the right message and targeting you will be sure that only people with appropriate expectations and setting will reach you. 
For example, your advertisement will be about desired prospect's outcome: "Get muscular! Proved methods. Money back guarantee.", and this message will be revealed to men aged 25-45 living or working in a 10-mile range of a personal training studio (8, 9). When you land people from the advertisement on your personal trainer service page (10), you'll explain how you help them to get muscle, how long it takes, how special you are, and so on. In other words, you set the right expectations. 

Second, you narrow down your list of prospects with qualitative data from online applications, live interviews, and demo sessions. By interpreting data from these sources, you'll learn what is prospect's availability and capability to act.

Prospect's availability to act can be defined by analyzing her daily routine - how does her casual day look like? At what day time would she prefer to workout and why? What kind of other daily activities will be affected by workout sessions? Is her daily routine consistent? Simply put, you need to predict, how many other activities will compete with a workout session each time?

Prospect's capability to act can be defined by evaluating prospect's present habits, achievements, likes and interests towards sports activities. 

Does prospect have bad habits? If she does, personal trainer and prospect have to work harder by trying to break bad habits along with building good habits. 
Does prospect have good habits? What are they? Maybe they could be the basis for new habits? 
Of course, there is no ideal prospect with only good habits. Most likely, this is a combination of good, neutral and bad. What you should be looking for, is a case where good habits take over bad habits.

Other questions that could shed more light on prospect's capability is about her achievements. What is her occupation? Is her career successful at any angle? If prospect proved to be successful, she got there not by the accident. Good chances are she was driven by a certain system: clearly defined life goals, good habits, supportive physical and social environment. The setting can be applied to drive healthier lifestyle too.

Finally, what are prospect's likes and interests towards sports activities? Does she have weight training experience? If she has, what aspects of weight training does she like or dislike? Does she love to be challenged? What are other sports she would favor?
I think the big problem might be that most of the people are brought to the gym by desired outcomes of training process, but not the process itself. That's why it's good to predict wether prospect's personality and gym training process could be a good fit. 

There are many questions to ask, and it may overwhelm prospect. A certain framework on how to collect qualitative data would be appreciated. Start with a little: maybe some of these questions can be addressed online, others which may require more subtlety should be asked in live interviews. For example, get just one answer and collect prospect's email address on your personal training service page, then send an email (11) and ask to fill out a short survey (12). Make sure it won't take long, just a few minutes or so. Finally, get the most sensitive answers in a live interview or demo session.

It may seem that this process is for finding the perfect client. Not at all, perfect client exists only in theory. Rather it will allow you to compare candidates and help to select the one with better chances to succeed.  

But what if you predict that prospect won't be successful with your service? Just be open and professional. If you notice potential obstacles, you can provide some guidance on how to remove them and encourage her to come back to you later when things are better. Most of the people will appreciate your honesty.


How to design behavior for client success?


To build or break a habit, it is required to understand what a habit is and how it is formed? Let's define habit and then deconstruct it.
"A habit (or wont) is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously", as stated on Wikipedia (13).
Every habit follows this mechanism: 
trigger/cue -> desire/motivation -> action/response -> reward (14, 15, 16). Eliminate at least one part of the system and you'll be breaking a habit. Ensure all parts of the system work seamlessly, and you'll be effectively rooting a new habit. 




Let's describe separate parts of habit mechanism now. Trigger is what starts us thinking about pleasure that we have experienced in the past. And when we think about the reward, desire arises. Desire is what drives us to act. The last part of the habit mechanism is reward for a certain action. The more times this cycle is performed, the stronger habit becomes. 

Here is an example to illustrate habit mechanism. At a some point of my mourning routine I will arrive to the kitchen. I have kettle there. It stands in a prominent place on the table next to the sink. It doesn't take long to notice it. And when that happens, I'll start thinking about a cup of fresh coffee - the smell, the taste, the energetic kick. The next thing I will do is fill the kettle, turn it on to boil, grind the coffee beans and put ground coffee into my cup. Few minutes later I will enjoy my morning coffee. It is inseparable part of my morning routine, my morning coffee habit.

To help clients stick with healthier lifestyle, we would need to identify habits which shape that type of lifestyle. There are a lot more tiny habits to promote a healthy living than I will refer here, however, these may be considered as key habits related to the personal training service: 
habit of showing up for a training session, 
habit of a healthy meal, 
habit of getting to bed early. 
If your client will manage to build these habits, she will certainly reach her fitness goals. Let's see, how a personal trainer can help build these key habits.

Four Laws of Behavior Change is practical framework to build good habits and break bad ones, introduced by James Clear in his book "Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones" (14). This framework offers a set of rules on how to work on each part of habit mechanism.

Four laws to build a good habit:

- cue/trigger -> make it obvious 
- desire/motivation -> make it attractive
action/response -> make it easy
reward -> make it satisfying





Four laws to break a bad habit:

- cue/trigger -> make it invisible 
- desire/motivation -> make it unattractive
action/response -> make it difficult
reward -> make it unsatisfying




Let's walk through each of the four laws and see how it can be applied to a personal trainer client. 


Make it obvious


Triggers arrive from the context: time, social and physical environment. 

Simply committing what (behavior), when (time), where (physical environment) and with whom (social environment) will be performed builds the basis to form a new habit (17). 
Triggers for the habit of showing up for a training session come up naturally: a personal trainer and client will setup a training plan (we will meet every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5pm), then they will agree on where they will be meeting (at a personal training studio) and what physical activity (weight lifting) will be performed, eventually a trainee and personal trainer will be meeting each other for a training session.

Every physical environment was designed to trigger certain behaviors. For example, bar is designed for alcohol drinking, meeting friends and having fun. So if a person visits venue full of bars, most likely she will drink a few beers. 
Shopping center is designed for shopping. Duh, it's obvious. What I like to emphasize, that a lot of smart people are working hard to make you spend more out there. So when a person visits a shopping center, most likely she will go out of control and will overspend. Architects of shopping centers are taking control of our shopping behavior (18).

Every person we know and interact with holds its own habits which shape her personality. Naturally, when we interact, we influence each other. The more people interact or spend time together, the more similar to each other they become (19). All of us have people around who drag us down, or people who help us to become better versions of ourselves.

So what can be done for environments, both social and physical, to make them better suited to encourage desired positive behaviors?

When possible, we should make transformations and become architects of our environments. We should learn from retailers and design our environment in a way that promotes desired behaviors and prevents bad ones. Certainly we have the greatest impact on environments, where we spend most of our time - home and work place. 
Let's take an example of how to encourage the habit of drinking water. If we want to drink more water, it will only take to put bottle of water and glass in as many places as we can: on our desk at work, in our bedroom, in the kitchen. It will become so much easier to stay hydrated because we will be surrounded by water filled bottles that will remind us to keep drinking water.

Here is another example. Suppose I'm sugar junkie, and I would like to eat less sweets. The best thing I can do right away is to get rid of fast sugar rich products. The next thing after cleaning - I should stop bringing sweets home. 

And here is an example of how to trigger action of going to bed early. Let's think about time (evening) and place (bedroom) for this behavior. 
Let's start with the place. I assume, that most of the people are similar to me: one or another way we are addicted to media and we are handling it badly (20). Most of the time we lose track of time while surfing Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix. For instances where media devices find their way to our bedrooms, we are doomed for sleep deprivation. Remove all media devices from your bedroom - this simple bold rule will clearly show the purpose of your bedroom.

Another aspect that encourages early sleep is the timing. A simple declaration such as "I'll start going to the bed routine at 9pm every workday" would help a lot. The difficult part on this is how to push ourselves to stop media entertainment. Setting a bedtime reminder would help certainly. To push ourselves even harder we could limit access of the internet depending on a daytime (21).  

What about transformation of friendships and relationships? We should continually evaluate our relationships and ask ourselves questions such as "Is this relationship bringing me down? Why? What bad behaviors we share and encourage while being together?". The part who first becomes aware of the problem is responsible to initiate problem solving. The other part can decide if the problem bothers her too and if it does, both parts can discuss how relationship could be transformed for the better. 
This could be illustrated in a situation where one of spouses decides to eat healthier and the other shows support by following a new behavior. 

In cases where we are unable to transform environments and are forced to play under the rules of other architects, we should prepare ourselves before visiting these sites. We should think about behaviors that are usually promoted over there and how we can act to prevent these unwanted behaviors.
Take, for example, a grocery store. Say we are up to build a new "I purchase whole foods only" habit. In this case we should think about purchase items before we go to the shop. We could set a broader rule, for example, "when I visit a grocery store, I buy only unprocessed and whole foods and avoid the aisles with processed foods", or we can make a traditional shopping list. With clear set of rules and purchase tasks, there will be less room for spontaneous hiking across aisles and less unhealthy foods in a shopping basket.

Finally, if there is possibility to avoid places that trigger undesired behaviors, these places should be avoided. 
Similarly, relationship that drags us down and there is no hope for a change, should be terminated. 
On the other side of continuum, relationship that makes us better versions of ourselves, should be fostered. 
Looking for a new relationship with people who share similar interests and promote desired behaviors should be considered as positive practice also.    


Make it attractive


The second law of Behavior Change by James Clear (14) states that we should make habit attractive, otherwise we won't feel desire and have no motivation to perform behavior itself. 

Let's see how we can make habits of a healthier lifestyle more attractive.
I like to think about attractiveness in two ways: 
psychological - how and what we think about action, 
and physical - how can we refine action itself to make it more attractive.

Let's think about the habit of working out. I assume that gym training industry has major problem: most of the people are brought to the gym by desired outcomes of training process, but not the process itself. This is why a lot of trainees may perceive training session as a sacrifice in return of desired outcome. Majority of them will give up (22) when they realize that sacrifice is a lot more bigger than they had predicted. Desired outcome will be outweighed by the sacrifice easily. 
If a personal trainer spots this way of thinking, she should help her client to reset by emphasizing positive aspects of the activity. For example, muscle stimulation may feel good for the majority. Breathing technique while lifting weights and physical stress will help to focus and get rid of any unwanted thoughts. Simply put, training process can be a great way to escape daily routine and forget everyday problems.

Shifting our mindset from "I need" to "I want" is what we should aim for. If we encourage positive thinking about training process and seek for attractive aspects of the activity, it starts to seem attractive. On the contrary, if we lock ourselves in negative thoughts about a certain activity, it starts to seem unattractive and we start to avoid it.
   
Thinking from a physical perspective, we can bring more attractiveness to the training process by linking it to what we already love: listening to favorite music, eating a healthy and tasty pre or after workout snack, drinking favorite energy booster, or wearing a comfortable outfit. 

A certain level of challenge will also increase attractiveness. It should be noted that challenge should be in line with person's abilities. Task should be not too heavy, not too easy, just about the right. One more rep compared to the previous session works magic.




The principle of mental reframing applies to the habit of a healthy meal. If we perceive a healthy meal as tasty and enjoyable, we feel desire to eat a healthy meal. Food is one of the greatest physical pleasures. It shouldn't be difficult to take full advantage of it (23). 


Make it easy


Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg says that behavior is equal to motivation, ability and trigger all at the same moment (24). BJ Fogg emphasizes that facilitation is the most important aspect to build a new habit: the less energy is needed for a certain activity, the less motivation it will require and the more likely it will occur. 

Let's see how this principle can be applied to develop healthier lifestyle habits. Consider habit of showing up for a training session as an example. Location of training studio will have a profound effect on this behavior: how easy or difficult it is to arrive at the gym will determine chances of success. That's why it's so important to target prospects who live, work or travel alongside a training studio. It's so much easier to get to the gym when gym location fits in client's daily routine.

Let's think about the habit of repacking gym bag before the next workout day or right after we come back home after a workout session. Most likely morning is daytime with a lot more stress compared to the evening for the majority, so even simple tasks during the morning rush may seem more difficult than they actually are. That is how reason to skip a workout session could be easily rooted.

Repacking is optimized for after workout: 
- often we are in a better mental state after workout compared to the morning rush, 
- towel, training t-shirt, socks need to be removed from the bag as soon as possible, 
- shaker and water bottle need to be cleaned as soon as possible. 
Repacking soon after workout will delight morning before the workout session. 

Another important aspect of heading client for success is facilitating training process. Complexity of workout sessions must be consistent with the client's training experience. This may seem obvious, but it may be so easy to overestimate customer's knowledge and ability to learn from a personal trainer point of view. Knowledge trap - most experts sit here. Experts tend to forget that others may lack some knowledge or skills and that things may be perceived differently.  
What seems like a dead simple task for one person could be the most difficult work for the other. 
For example, training session requires a lot of energy from the novice not only because of low physical capability, but also because of high cognitive load: the beginner will have to be aware of the movement form and there are many things to know if a person tries to learn squatting for instance (25). To make things even more complicated, it turns out that average person can only keep 7 items on their working memory (26). Every training session should be designed with this in mind. Less is better. The complexity should arise slow and steady (27).
It should be noted that the complexity of activity will affect how client feels during this activity. A person will feel maximum motivation if her skills match the complexity of the task (28). Emotions during activity can clearly identify wether behavior will be continued in the future.

Let's see how the principle of simplicity could be implemented with dietary habits. 
Each diet includes a certain regimen (how many meals I should eat on a daily basis and when?) and cooking (how many times I should prepare food on a daily basis?). These aspects will vary greatly depending on client's preferences and capabilities and they will determine whether diet plan will be implemented successfully.
How many meals per day? Are seven meals well suited to her everyday life? For most nine to five people 2-3 daily meals would be a sweet spot. How many hours per day should be dedicated for cooking? One hour, maximum two. All above should be considered unusual. The less energy for cooking, the less time for meals, the more likely routine will be followed.


Make it satisfying


The last aspect of behavioral model is reward. This is what we get for our effort to do a certain action. Behaviors that bring us immediate satisfaction are often repeated. That's why it's so easy to build a bad habit - most of bad habits bring us instant joy with no present evidence of any future harm! On the contrary, most good habits do not bring instant satisfaction, but rather build a brighter future for us.  
This brings us back to the gym industry problem: most people join the gym for desired training outcomes, not the training itself. We have addressed this problem by introducing mind reframing to perceive training sessions in a more positive ways. Let's think now about how a trainee can get a real immediate reward for a workout session?

We can look for a workout session reward by defining what training actually is: "Training is teaching, or developing in oneself or others, any skills and knowledge that relate to specific useful competencies", as stated on Wikipedia (29). When the competence of a trainee grows, it will be accompanied be the sense of self-achievement (30). It feels good and it's satisfying. 
In terms of weight training, competence can be related to the knowledge of discipline: movements technique, programming, training regime, but mainly it's about the development of strength skill or about getting stronger. 
Strength skill is well suited for measuring. It's all about the numbers - weights and reps. Workout tracking allows to gain immediate reward after every successful set and makes weight training process more satisfying. 
Weight training log provides clear evidence of progress. It helps to realize small wins and feel successful.



     
The first three laws of behavior change (14) increase the likelihood of behavior, and the forth - make it satisfying - increases the likelihood of repetition. It's important to move forward in small ways and to be constantly challenged because it keeps us engaged and willing to continue.


In summary


Customer success equals the success of a personal training business. Stronger, healthier, sexier and more confident is what can be considered the success of a personal trainer client. 
Behavior change enhances the impact of a personal training service and increases the likelihood of client success. 
A personal trainer has to ensure that her clients will achieve desired outcome while using personal training service. To achieve this a personal trainer has to target the right prospect, know what problem has to be solved, identify which prospects are more likely to succeed and implement behavior change along with the regular aspects of a personal training service.