Strategies for Personal Trainers : ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal

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Strategies for Personal Trainers

Acquaviva, John Ph.D.

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 8(2):p 8-10, March 2004.
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Personal trainers must often use a variety of tactics to motivate their clients. Trainers may benefit from some research that has investigated how and why adults adopt and maintain their exercise programs. Specifically, the Transtheoretical Model has been used to understand how people make changes concerning their exercise behavior. Although the original purpose of this model was to investigate and alter addictive behaviors, there has been plenty of literature involving this model that has focused upon physical activity (1–4). This article will introduce the Transtheoretical Model and identify specific ways personal trainers can apply the model to their practice.


Explanation of the Transtheoretical Model

The Transtheoretical Model shows that people make behavior change in stages and that they may advance to another stage with the assistance of various strategies (formerly known as processes). The two components of this model include the stages of change model and the processes of change.

Stages of Change Model

Research shows that starting an exercise program and adhering to it is more than simply “doing it” or “not doing it,” but it can be explained within a series of stages (1, 2). These stages include precontemplation (no intention to make changes), contemplation (considering a change), preparation (making small changes), action (actively engaging in behavior change), and maintenance (sustaining the change for 6 months or more) (5, 6).

Processes of Change

Processes are common activities that individuals use in an attempt to change behavior. Specifically, these activities are used to help individuals move from one stage to the next or to prevent them from slipping backward. Although clients in any stage might benefit from any process, it is clear that some of the processes must be used for behavior change to occur (2, 4, 7).

How Personal Trainers Can Apply the Processes

Although some fitness professionals, perhaps unknowingly, use a few of the processes with their clients, most would benefit from knowing a variety of ways to apply each process. Here are the 10 processes and some specific ways personal trainers can use them:

1. Consciousness Raising

Provide information regarding exercise, fitness, and health (e.g., pamphlets on exercise prescription or the benefits of exercise).

  • Give periodic reminders/notification of fitness principles, exercise adherence strategies, and recent research.
  • Suggest/provide specific readings, such as articles or chapters of a text or book.
  • Periodically ask your client about various fitness principles and other related information to check for understanding.
  • Notify clients of upcoming presentations or provide videos of dynamic speakers to improve client’s motivation.

2. Dramatic Relief

Encourage clients to reflect on the negative health consequences of inactivity (e.g., high stress levels, being overweight, and poor personal appearance).

  • Periodically provide newspaper, magazine, and professional journal articles that discuss the effects of physical inactivity.
  • Discuss the stress level in the client’s life, its physiologic effects, and how exercise affects the symptoms.

3. Environmental Reevaluation

Provide clients with the opportunity to determine how physical activity is affecting them physically and socially.

  • Periodically discuss the physical effects of habitual exercise.
  • Discuss the ways that being physically active affects the activity of others (e.g., how parents affect their children’s activity levels).

4. Self-Reevaluation

Provide clients with the opportunity to determine how physical activity is affecting them psychologically.

  • Have discussions of how exercise affects self-confidence, self-esteem, and emotional state.
  • Encourage clients to keep a journal, with entries that discuss how exercise has altered their lives and perhaps those around them.

5. Social Liberation

Encourage clients to be active in addition to your training sessions.

  • Notify clients of local 5k runs, fun runs, or other fitness challenges and encourage participation.
  • Discuss how to incorporate activity into daily routines (e.g., walk to work when possible or take the stairs instead of the elevator).

6. Counterconditioning

Substitute alternative behaviors for sedentary activities.

  • Incorporate some form of physical activity into most, if not all, days.
  • Exercise while, or instead of, watching TV.

7. Helping Relationships

Encourage clients to get support in their effort to exercise outside of personal training sessions.

  • Give constant feedback on client’s exercise program outside of personal training sessions.
  • Encourage clients to find a workout partner when not in a personal training session, and discuss the numerous benefits of exercising with a partner.

8. Reinforcement Management

Create a reasonable reward system.

  • Emphasize the emotional and physical benefits of habitual activity.
  • Teach an appropriate self-reward system for meeting particular goals (e.g., treat oneself to a movie or piece of clothing rather than dessert).
  • Develop a reward system based on individual goals, and have a drawing at the end of each month including all of your clients as participants (e.g., provide a gift certificate from a local sporting goods store).

9. Self-Liberation

Teach clients several goal-setting techniques to assist in their exercise habits.

  • Discuss and assist in setting client’s various short- and long-term goals.
  • Have clients practice short- and long-term goal-setting techniques through a fitness diary or journal entries, and periodically discuss progress.

10. Stimulus Control

Provide meaningful and noticeable stimuli (e.g., bulletin boards, advertisements, and posters) that might encourage all clients to become and remain more physically active.

  • Strategically place bulletin boards, posters, and advertisements near cardio and resistance training equipment, locker rooms, and group aerobics room.
  • Advise clients to place stimuli in strategic locations at home.


Although adults tend to use processes according to their specific stage of change, there are no hard guidelines (2). However, some clients may need to have their stage of change identified to guide them toward the maintenance stage or to simply prevent them from moving backwards. Overall, and considering that there are no set rules, the trainer should thoroughly understand the processes and apply them into training sessions and their client’s everyday situations. Because of the difficulty of behavior change, it appears that an effective way to improve exercise adherence may be through introducing adults to a variety of strategies as early and as often as possible.

Condensed Version and Bottom Line

Clients of personal trainers struggle with motivating themselves to stay physically fit. Researchers have identified several strategies that people can use to help them maintain their fitness programs. Therefore, your effectiveness as a personal trainer and fitness professional will improve if you understand these strategies and know how to apply them into the daily lives of your clients.


1.Barke, C. R., and D. R. Nicholas. Physical activity and older adults: the stages of change. The Journal of Applied Gerontology 9:216-223, 1990.
2.Marcus, B. H., J. S. Rossi, V. C. Selby, R. S. Niaura, and D. B. Abrams. The stages of change and processes of exercise adoption and maintenance in a worksite sample. Health Psychology 11:386-395, 1992.
3.Nigg, C. R., and K. S. Courneya. Transtheoretical model: examining adolescent behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health 22:214-224, 1998.
4.Marcus, B. H., L. R. Simkin, J. S. Rossi, and B. M. Pinto. Longitudinal shifts in employees’ stages and processes of exercise behavior change. American Journal of Health Promotion 10:195-200, 1996.
5.Prochaska, J. O., and C. C. DiClemente. Transtheoritical therapy: toward a more integrative model of change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 19:276-288, 1982.
6.DiClemente, C. C., J. O. Prochaska, S. K. Fairhurst, W. F. Velicer, M. M. Velasquez, and J. S. Rossi. The process of smoking cessation: an analysis of precontemplation, contemplation, and preparation stages of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 59:295-304, 1991.
7.Prochaska, J. O., and C. C. DiClimente. Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 51:390-395, 1983.

Personal Training; Behavior Change; Transtheoretical Model; Stages of Change; Processes of Change

© 2004 American College of Sports Medicine