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Help Clients Make the Right Connection: Questions That Help Navigate

Sanders, Mary E. Ph.D., FACSM

ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: July-August 2008 - Volume 12 - Issue 4 - p 28-32
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31817bf702

Help Clients Make the Right Connection: Questions That Help Navigate.

Mary E. Sanders, Ph.D., FACSM, is an associate professor in the School of Medicine and adjunct professor in the School of Public Health, University of Nevada, Reno. She is an associate editor of ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal ®, editor of the YMCA Water Fitness for Health training manual, and the 1997 IDEA Instructor of the Year. Dr. Sanders's Web site is

As I worked out in the gym on the second floor, the elevator door opened, and a family of four, considered overweight or obese according to body mass index standards, stepped gingerly into the room. The facility guide enthusiastically pointed out the wide variety of exercise machines, tools, toys, and options. Members ran on the treadmills, stepped vigorously on the StairMaster®, "skied" the elliptical, crunched on the ball, balanced on the wobble boards, pumped weights on the machines, climbed the vertical wall, and stretched on the mat. The room was alive with activity and excitement.

Eyes wide open, the family nodded their heads in agreement with the positive images in the room, but also seemed a bit unsure and overwhelmed. Nobody in the room looked like them.

How can health and fitness professionals help clients understand their own needs and then guide them to the best path? By asking questions that make us think, we may be able to focus clients on the most important issues. Their responses will provide information through their personal lens. This insight can help trainers and clients make information-based choices that are participant centered.

New clients benefit from an individualized program that is gradually progressive. Connecting clients to a facility, program, or trainer that is right for them can make a difference between adopting an active lifestyle or not. Positive exercise experiences and experiencing an exercise result (feel stronger, more energy, change in body shape, etc.) are two of the most powerful motivators for long-term activity adherence. When clients enter a facility, they are seeking a change, and we have an opportunity at that moment to make a difference.

Let's examine some questions that may be helpful. Clients may prefer to discuss these questions with a trainer or they may enjoy responding via written survey or online.

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When a client walks in the door, we have an opportunity to welcome them and make them feel comfortable right away. Navigating through gyms may feel overwhelming for people new to the exercise facility experience. Simple first questions can help the front desk person connect clients to the right person in your facility who can offer help based on needs. Let's say a facility provides coordinators that are responsible for conducting general tours, for advising members on options for equipment orientations, and for educating members on group exercise activities and personal training programs. Front desk questions that connect people to the right staff member might include:

Photo courtesy of WaterFit

Photo courtesy of WaterFit

Photo courtesy of WaterFit

Photo courtesy of WaterFit

  1. Have you exercised in a gym or facility like this one before?
  2. □ Yes
  3. □ No
  4. Have you been taught by a fitness professional how to use exercise equipment?
  5. □ Yes
  6. □ No
  7. □ Not sure
  8. Do you prefer exercising on your own?
  9. □ Yes
  10. □ No
  11. □ Not sure
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Action Plan and Staff Contact(s)

Questions 1 to 3 Yes

Facility tour, personal training

Questions 1 Yes, 2 and 3 No/not sure

Facility tour, equipment orientation, group exercise

Questions 1 and 2 Yes, 3 No/not sure

Facility tour, group exercise, personal training

Questions 1 to 3 No/not sure

Facility tour, group exercise, personal training

Question 1 No, 2 and 3 Yes

Facility tour, personal training

Questions 1 and 2 No, 3 Yes

Facility tour, equipment orientation, personal training

Appointments can then be made with the coordinator who can address the client's initial issues. When the member has been connected to the appropriate person, follow-up questions can then focus on the individual's activity plan and specific needs.

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Jim Fitzsimmons, M.S., assistant director, Campus Wellness, University of Nevada, Reno, poses some of these questions to learn about campus members:

1. What is your goal?

The client's response determines the type of training that needs to be emphasized. You'll also be able to plan the exercise intensity, frequency of sessions, and duration.

2. How many days per week can you commit to working out?

I'll often remind the client to be a realist about the number of days. If they tell me they are married, with kids, and a job, and they say they can work out 5 days a week, sometimes I ask them to really think about it. Usually, we'll agree to start conservatively with 3 days and then we will add days. The idea is for people to succeed, and sometimes, the pace of life and the unpredictable things that take up our day set them up for failure if they bite off too much at the start.

3. How many minutes of real training time do you have per training day to work out?

When I ask this question, we take into account the time to commute to the facility, changing times and any preparation time that needs to be considered. A personal goal may be something that cannot be accomplished through a training regimen that includes only one day a week for 30 minutes. Goals and training commitment have to jive, and the trainer needs to communicate this to the client. I have refused to accept clients who are unprepared to accept the responsibility for the effort they'll need to invest. They are welcome to come back when they are serious about achieving their goal by committing enough time to a program that meets their needs.

4. Do you have any previous injuries or medical conditions that would prevent you from engaging in a particular type of training using the equipment you see in our facility?

After completing a Par-Q for You form (1) and/or the American Heart Association/American College of Sports Medicine's Health/Fitness Facility Pre-participation Screening Questionnaire (2), you'll want to discuss the results with the client. However, it may be important to address the issues again from the perspective of equipment needed for successful training. If different or modified equipment needs to be considered, will the trainer or facility provide them?

5. What exercises do you like to do? Which ones do you not like?

I'll note the preferences and explore the "don't like" activities. Many times, the exercises categorized as "don't like"is because of ignorance, bad past experience, or fear of the unknown. These same activities may become a "like to do" if approached and coached correctly.

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Effective dialogue between trainer and client can lead to a healthy match and stimulate rich discussions.

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Start on the Inside

Encourage the client to first conduct a self-assessment. Some questions that might help include:

  • What are my training goals?
  • What are my expectations for a personal training relationship?
  • What am I willing to do?
  • What do I want to change about myself?
  • What do I want to get better at doing?
  • What does the personal trainer need to know about me for him/her to be successful as a trainer?
  • Will I be working with other health/fitness professionals such as a nutritionist?
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Move to the Outside

Meet the person and see if you "click" or could at the very least work together. Here are some questions that trainers and clients can address that may provide some insights:

  • My goals for training are ___. And I'd like to be better at doing ___. What type of program do you envision would meet these goals?
  • ○Trainer would answer this, and client can see if it sounds like something they'd like to or be willing to do.
  • How do you design a program for a new client?
  • ○Trainer addresses health history, fitness assessment, evaluation, progressive training, variety, or activities, and the client can see if it fits his/her idea for training.
  • What types of exercise programs do you offer?
  • ○Trainer would describe his/her areas of expertise and be ready to document training in each area. Clients should look for variety that matches their interests and abilities including water, land, sports, and/or postrehab activities.
  • What fitness assessments are included?
  • ○Trainers would be ready to describe the assessments and how they'll apply to the client's individual needs. Clients should look for valid assessments that address cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance, flexibility, functional activities of daily living, and body composition within the individual's fitness level.
  • How often are assessments conducted to track changes?
  • ○Trainers discuss frequency of assessments and how the data will be used for program development or modification. Clients need to see if these assessments match their goals, does the trainer track changes and then use the information to change your program in response. Assessments should be taken every 8 to 12 weeks.
  • I have some medical or personal needs that include ___. How would you respond to these needs during our program?
  • ○Trainers need to be prepared to show evidence of education and experience with each medical condition that the client discusses. Clients should check documentation and evidence of specialty training that apply to their condition.
  • I'd like to speak with some clients who you've trained for more insight. Can you provide me with a list of references and contact information?
  • ○Trainers should be prepared to provide references. Clients should be encouraged to ask the people who were referenced by the trainer for impressions from other clients that the trainer may have worked with because trainers will refer them to only positive clients.
  • What certifications or training do you have?
  • ○Trainers should be ready to provide documentation of certifications and training courses. Clients should check that the certificates are nationally recognized.
  • What times are you available to train?
  • ○Trainers provide options, and clients can see if the time fits their life.
  • Where will we meet?
  • ○Trainers provide options, and clients can offer their resources.
  • What are your cancellation policies, "no show" fees, and billing methods?
  • ○Trainer would be prepared by having this in writing, so it's easily shared with the client. Clients must take responsibility for accepting the terms that both parties have agreed upon.
  • What are your rates?
  • ○Trainers need to position themselves within the local market range. Clients need to negotiate rates with the trainer and have a clear understanding.
Photo courtesy of WaterFit

Photo courtesy of WaterFit

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See if you and the trainer or you and the client share a vision for training methods, understand your personal needs, can agree on realistic goals, that you feel comfortable with the person, and that you are willing to work as a team. Remember, there are two of you in the relationship-you and the trainer or you and the client. There should be mutual respect based on shared vision for health, active listening, and compassion.

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A good connection with clients or members depends on the quality and type of programs you offer. Many facilities now choose to contract with outside organizations that offer prepackaged programs. Questions can serve as a foundation for discussion to determine if there's a good fit. A simple list of pros and cons (including short- and long-term impacts) also may be useful in making outsourcing decisions. Some questions to consider asking include

  • Core values: What are the core values that ground your decisions and program content?
  • Who are your advisers?
  • What are your resources?
  • What are your sources for information?
  • Is the program evidence based?
  • What type of participants do you serve?
  • What are the short- and long-term goals and objectives for your program(s)?
  • How do you individualize your programs for participants with special needs?
  • How do you meet their needs?
  • How do you measure if the program is safe, effective, and successful?
  • How much does the program cost the facility and how is the contract for services organized?
  • Will our program methods for training contradict one another?
  • How much will participants have to invest? For example, do they have to purchase certain types of equipment or special software programs to participate?
  • How do you handle customer feedback?
  • How are instructors/leaders trained?
  • What is the source of your training methods? Is your training program based on current evidence and aligned with recommendations from national organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine?
  • How will instructors/leaders participate in continuing education?
  • What is the cost to instructors or the facility for education or training renewal?
  • How do you address liability insurance coverage for your programs and instructors?
  • What resources do you require to conduct your programs?
  • Can you provide a list of facilities that currently offer your program?
  • What do I need to know about you to make our collaboration successful?
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Questions can serve as a guide to action by identifying individual needs while considering individual differences. One size does not fit all. Understanding how to focus on important issues may be helpful for trainers and clients to find the best program fit. Develop your own questions that are tailored to the needs of your own facility and client base. Questions lead to a new understanding that inspires more questions to tease out the most important aspects of connecting to your client.

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Check out for useful brochures that can help guide clients to the right programs and clients.

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Special thanks to my team for valuable input: Dixie Stanforth, M.S., The University of Texas at Austin, Kinesiology & Health Education; Mary Curry, College of St. Catherine's-Minneapolis, St. Paul, MN; James A. Fitzsimmons, M.S., assistant director, Campus Wellness, University of Nevada, Reno, NV. Special thanks to our Campus Wellness staff and photo models: James A. Fitzsimmons, M.S., Johnny Berriochoa, Julie Baird, Sheena Harvey, Brandyn Herman, and Michelle Turner.

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1. Par-Q & You (2002). Physical activity readiness questionnaire. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Available at
2. American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 7th ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006.
© 2008 American College of Sports Medicine