Top Tips for Trainers - Training Overweight and Obese Clients

Top Tips for Trainers - Training Overweight and Obese Clients

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Top Tips for Trainers

Training Overweight and Obese Clients

By Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot | Image by Shutterstock

As a personal trainer there can be nothing more satisfying than the success stories of your clients. The feeling that you’ve truly engaged and understood your client and helped them make a change that has a profound and hopefully long lasting impact on their lives.

But how do you get to that point? What are the most effective methods you can use to help your client, and help yourself understand your client?

Let’s start by saying that there’s no easy way about it; we are all individuals with personal histories and more often than not it’s these histories that are the source for clients who have ongoing weight struggles.

In order to effectively help your client, you’re going to need to understand who they are, why they need your help and how you can assist them. Let’s break it down into four stages:

1.       Learn to identify your client’s perspective

2.       Listening

3.       Learning to empathise - not sympathise

4.       Start a cycle of change


You may have very different opinions to your client; a different outlook on life, and almost certainly different life experiences, but none of this means that you aren’t capable of putting yourself in their shoes and imagining their point of view. In order to understand their weight struggle you have to understand the client’s context; where they come from, what their struggles are, and how they relate to others. They might have identified their problem eating and exercise behaviours or they may not have, but it’s up to you to be intuitive and encouraging when trying to understanding a client’s weight struggles.

If you understand their perspective, a client’s difficulties will seem more relatable and understandable even if initially you couldn’t personally imagine the rationale behind their decision making. If you can’t understand your client, you risk becoming frustrated and you also risk losing your client.


Once you feel you can see things from your clients perspective it’s time to start empathising, in fact you can only begin to empathise once you are coming from a position of understanding. You will not be able to help your clients unless you can communicate to them that you understand what they are going through and are ready and willing to listen to them. Empathy is extremely important because it fosters trust from the client and the belief that you are able to help them.

Don’t mistake empathy for sympathy. While people often want your understanding, they rarely want your pity or to be made to feel that they are vulnerable and weak. Sympathy is feeling sorry for your client and this brings ‘you’ into the picture when a session is a time for everything to be about ‘them’. This is the time to make them feel strong and supported so that they can start their weight loss journey with a little confidence in their trainer and themselves. But remember: draw clear lines with your clients - your job is to help them achieve their weight loss and fitness goals. If there are issues that are out of your professional criteria, refer them to someone qualified in that field.


·         Saying: ‘I know how you feel, that happened to me once/someone I know etc.’

·         Making the client feel sorry for you. (I.e. PT: ‘When that happened to someone I knew, I found it really hard’, Client: ’That’s awful, were you close?’)

Instead, try to reflect their emotions by repeating part of what they’ve just said, or indicating that you’ve heard and understood. To be a good empathiser, you need to stay with your client’s experience without shifting it onto your own. If something they say triggers some of your own issues, mentally put it on the shelf and go back to it at an appropriate time to reflect or talk it over with a friend.

When a client is opening up to you, it’s important that you pay them full attention and concentrate on what they are saying without letting your mind drift. Also, avoid interrupting them with advice or information or something you think is important to say. Wait until they are finished, otherwise you risk making them feel unheard, dismissed or unimportant and they will shut down.

Avoid listening with a critical ear or judgement as it is an obstacle to empathy. You must set aside your preconceptions if you are to empathise with anyone. Any hint that they are being negatively judged will shut them down and hinder their progress. Remember, they need to be supported and are hypersensitive to criticism; you don’t want your client to feel alienated or judged by the person they have come to for help.


A lot of people find silence uncomfortable, but you’re going to have to learn to leave a little silence when your client is talking. There’s nothing wrong with letting a pause unfold and seeing what happens, perhaps your client needs a moment to gather their thoughts, or something they have said bears reflecting on for a moment. Be silent but attentive by making eye contact and having positive body language. This will show your client that you are listening and let them know that this is their time to talk and you are paying attention. These people are used to being dismissed or rejected and will need extra sign posts that you are here to help and not shut them down or reinforce their negative behaviour or thinking patterns.

Listeners: The good, the bad and the ugly

As you can tell by now we think listening is the key skill to maintaining a good and effective relationship with your clients. But how do we listen? More often than not we think we are being good listeners when we are not. Here are some key things to remember when you are trying to be a good listener:

Good Listeners

·         Are patient and don’t jump in when someone is thinking

·         Don’t interrupt

·         Give their full attention, including eye contact and posture

·         Let you know they’re following you by prompting, nodding and asking you to explain something

·         Don’t judge or criticise

·         Support to solve your problems rather than coming up with solutions

·         Don’t relate everything you say to their own personal experience

·         Are empathic

·         Are genuinely curious about what’s going on for you

Bad Listeners

·         Interrupt or change the subject

·         Speak over you

·         Are chronic advice givers

·         Are problem solvers

·         Shift their body impatiently

·         Don’t hold eye contact or glance around a lot

·         Say “Yes! That happened to me” or “I remember when…”

Ugly Listeners

·         Start a sentence with “No offence but…” and then proceed to offend you

·         Desert you to do something else or talk to someone else

·         Finish your sentences

·         Say “I know exactly how you feel!”

Asking Why Now?

Making a major lifestyle change and committing to it doesn’t come without some good reasoning behind it. Ask your client why now and not two years ago? What has led them to the course of action they are now taking?

Don’t assume you know what a client is thinking when they start something new. Knowing their personal reason is an important piece of information; reminding them what it is may be the only thing that helps them push through and keep going when it all gets too hard. It could be as simple as seeing themselves look fat in a photo or as serious as a medical warning. Whatever the reason, it’s important to keep the client focused on their reason and not let them forget why they made the commitment to exercise.

Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot are psychologists and authors of The Ultimate Guide to Training Overweight and Obese Clients. For more information, visit

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