When we first meet with a client, it is standard practice of effective personal trainers to have goal-setting exploratory discussions; you can’t know where to lead your client if you have no idea where they want to go. But goals are like feelings: unless people have a ton of experience exploring them, it’s very difficult to understand them let alone name them. To help your clients identify their authentic health and fitness goals, you can delve much deeper into their wants and needs while goal-setting by using a series of “whys”.

Connecting “wants” with our basic ‘”needs”

A popular goal-setting strategy that trainers often employ with new clients is called the “5 Whys”. In this practice, the new client will tell their trainer what their goal is: get stronger arms.

Then the trainer asks, “why?”. Whatever the client answers, the trainer asks “why?” again, and so on. The point of this exercise is to take the client’s initial objective, to “get stronger arms”, and eventually connect it to a deeper value, more closely related to one of their more foundational needs.

Once an individual can identify the need that their want is related to, theory suggests that their motivation will be more intrinsic. According to Self-Determination Theory and repeated positive research, intrinsic motivation is “more predictive of long-term exercise adherence” compared to individuals who are extrinsically motivated (Teixara et al). There is, however, some debate on how to define exactly what our foundational needs are. Here, we can turn to a number of well-accepted psychological frameworks to help understand what our basic needs are, and how to determine which of these needs guide our goal setting.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow (April 1, 1908 – June 8, 1970) was a psychologist who developed his theory in the 1940’s. Maslow not only suggested what our basic needs are but also created a heirarchy of needs, or pyramid, not unlike the classic food pyramid. Each level of need on this pyramid, starting at the base, must be met before an individual can focus on the next level.

As you can see in the image below, according to Maslow, an individual needs food and warmth before they can focus on safety and shelter. From there they need relationships, community, and sex before they can achieve a healthy sense of self-esteem. Finally, Maslow’s Triangle as it’s known lists self-actualization as the final level of foundational needs.

This is the level where some individuals have found success, and desire to pass on their wisdom or legacy. Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is widely accepted as a thorough list of our basic needs, a common protest is that humans don’t often achieve these goals in the order displayed in his triangle.

Maslows Pyramid Large

McClelland’s Theory of Needs

In the 1960s, building off of Maslow’s Hierarchy, David McClelland defined three different and equally important aspects of individual motivation; Achievement, Power, and Affiliation (Kukreja). Unlike Maslow’s theory, McClelland’s theory did not suggest that these aspects are dependent upon each other, but can affect any individual based on their life experiences and ideologies. 

The need for achievement can drive certain individuals to be motivated by their visible successes. Money and things might not motivate them as much as recognition by colleagues or completion of a creative project.

Individuals who are driven by the need for power want those around them to share their views and opinions. Their need for acceptance is similar to those people motivated by achievement, but not at the expense of losing. Being right gives them satisfaction.

And finally the need for affiliation drives certain individuals to try to fit into certain groups. These individuals will adhere to social norms that help to secure their acceptance into social groups. McClelland’s three motivators are all very much based on types of social acceptance and what Maslow would have considered “self-esteem”.

Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory

Similar to McClellands theory, Self-Determination Theory presents three core needs that each person desires to obtain. In this theory, however, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan claim that the basis of each of these needs is that humans have an “inherent tendency to move toward growth”.  Therefore; Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness are major motivators for different individuals. Competence and relatedness mirror McClelland’s achievement and affiliation respectively.

But, the shining star of Self-Determination Theory is autonomy: a person’s sense of controlling their own decisions and outcomes. Research has continually shown that intrinsically motivated goals, (goals that are motivated by rewards such as self-satisfaction, sense of success, or better personal health), often lead to better success rates than extrinsically motivated goals. Extrinsically motivated goals are generally rewarded by more tangible things like money, prizes, or sometimes recognition. When individuals have a part in creating their own goals, designing processes, and selecting rewards, they will likely reach their goals more successfully.


[sc name=”leads” ]



Now, with the tools to identify our fundamental needs, we have to dig a little deeper, and realize what really drives our personal clients notion of wants and needs. It doesn’t necessarily take all five “whys” to get from a want to a basic need. According to Maslow, sex is a valuable motivator, if considered responsibly, of course. If we ask McClelland, looking good in front of colleagues is a legitimate need, and a great motivator. Deci and Ryan suggest that, as long as an individual has control over their decisions, they will succeed at reaching their goals.

Ask questions and let your clients make their own decisions, with your professional guidance of course, and all parties involved will succeed.

[sc name=”masterfitness” ][/sc]


Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: a systematic review. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 9, 78. https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-9-78


Kukreja, Sonia. Management Study HQ , McClelland’s Theory of Needs (Power, Achievement, and Affiliation), https://www.managementstudyhq.com/mcclellands-theory-of-needs-power-achievement-and-affiliation.html

Schulte , Rebecca, May 6, 2020 ,GQR, What Is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) & Why Does It Matter? https://www.gqrgm.com/what-is-self-determination-theory-sdt-why-does-it-matter/

Andrew Gavigan

Andrew Gavigan is a recognized speaker in the fitness industry, master trainer, Creator of the mostFit Core Hammer, and serves as Director of Education for Aktiv Solutions. He is a NASM and NFPT Certified Personal Trainer and Behavioral Change Specialist and has developed comprehensive fitness and exercise programs for health club & workplace wellness facilities. Andrew’s passion centers around user engagement and human behavior.