musclesPersonal trainers can help clients reprogram their thinking and realize their fitness goals. Without a change in thought patterns, behavior doesn’t change. Neuro-linguistic programming is a way to accomplish this.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) provides a model of change that can help clients find success in their quest to conquer the mental aspect of fitness. NLP can greatly enhance one’s physical and mental health by teaching how to set appropriately framed goals.

It is not the role of a personal trainer to be a psychologist or mental health professional, however, it is within our scope of practice to motivate and coach clients toward their health goals.

Getting Inside the Brain

In order for clients to successfully reach fitness goals, developing this “inner game” is critical. What exactly defines a winning “inner game” of fitness?

  • Setting clear and reasonable goals
  • Cultivating – and retaining –the motivation and self-discipline necessary to reach these goals
  • Willingness to learn ways of breaking old habits in favor of creating new, healthier ones
  • Reformatting self-image, including positive self-talk
  • Acknowledging step-by-step progress, thereby building self-esteem

How Does Neuro-linguistic Programming Work?

By learning to address how we take in information through our senses (neurology), translate it into language (linguistic), and make patterns or mental models (programs) that influence our behavior, such programming can ultimately foster greater self-awareness, natural change, and personal excellence. In essence, by working through this process with a client, NLP offers a way to deconstruct the old images (the ones that cause the current detrimental behavior) and construct the new desired actions.

Meeting Clients Where They Are and “Tapping In”

How many of us have encountered new clients who claim they just want to be a Size 2? When asked why they are allowing that number to wield so much power, they often reply that it represents their ideal of a perfect shape. By utilizing the tools of NLP, we can reformat that goal into something realistic and attainable.

Since there is no such thing as a universal “perfect body”, our job lies in reprogramming the client’s mind to see that what she probably desires is a fit and healthier body. It is important for personal trainers to help clients rephrase goals such as “being a Size 2” to better reflect the true outcome they are seeking: healthy body, improved muscle tone, flexibility, proper nutrition, positive outlook.

How to Listen so Clients Will Speak

NLP takes this entire process a step deeper, and it is there that we find the greatest challenge for personal trainers. We must develop a strong ear: we have to listen to our clients very closely and also be able to infer what is not being said.

A client will often claim that weight loss is a top priority and his primary reason for hiring a personal trainer. Over time, however, not only is weight not coming off; your client keeps skipping sessions and providing weak excuses for his absences. As a seasoned professional, you may rightly think,” What happened to his priority?”

While we cannot drag a client out of bed and force him to attend his scheduled session – and work hard while he is there – we can ponder what may be standing in his way. Breakthroughs often materialize for a client when the trainer taps into this individual’s “inner game” and helps him to reframe his motivation from “losing weight” to something with a more positive framework.

Before this can even occur, however, the trainer must learn about his client’s past. What causes him to continually sabotage his own goals? Perhaps the client reveals that he grew up in a household where his mother was constantly dieting and rarely ate meals with the family. This haunted him all through his adolescent development, so much so that as an adult he found it soothing to eat whatever he wanted; losing weight was something with which his mother was obsessed, and he wanted no part of that.

Armed now with the understanding of why the client is getting stuck, a clever and creative trainer can help him shift his perspective by reformatting his original goal into something with a more positive spin. By suggesting that he focus on getting stronger, having more energy, enjoying a better, more restful night’s sleep, and finding some healthy recipes to try, you will most likely observe an uptick in his “inner game”, a return of his original motivation.

Before too long, the client’s weight begins to drop, and all of the aforementioned positive results come to fruition. NLP enables us to help provide the same desired result, albeit through a newly learned and altered neural pathway.

Creating a compelling future is one of the keys to winning the “inner game” of fitness training. Accomplishing this involves visualizing desired goals and successful outcomes. Such images help to inspire us and propel us forward toward a dream, goal or outcome.

Consider asking your client to think about the following:

  • “In general, what motivates you?”
  • “What inspires you?”
  • “What moves you to action, or gets you out of bed in the morning?”

After some thoughtful consideration, he may offer up these responses~

  • Success
  • Praise
  • Recognition
  • Love and Acceptance
  • Making a difference in the world
  • Setting my sights on something I want to make my own (a home, an education, a thinner body, a job, a cause)

These are all examples of “values.” When we can connect our future plans and long-term visions to these values, goals become even more compelling.

Neurolinguistic Programming Techniques

NLP techniques, such as those involving timeline work, can be very useful in helping bring a person back into his or her past in order to discover the situations that originally triggered unhealthy eating habits leading to weight gain. It does take more than one or two sessions to identify and reprogram the problematic thought process. Taking this time, however, can help lift the burden off clients so that they are able to move forward with their lives.

A female client confesses that she has always struggled with eating and weight issues. The source of this struggle was her feeling that she didn’t deserve to be happy. A trainer can help her explore the origin of this feeling, and in doing so, may discover that the woman had grown up in a poor, rural but hard-working community. As an adult, the client felt guilty that she was more successful than her friends and relatives. She was afraid that if she embraced her success, she would lose it all. Overeating and being heavy was a way of punishing herself for her success so that she wasn’t perfect.

Armed with such knowledge, the trainer’s job is to help the client reframe the part of her that feels guilty for succeeding. Over time, it is possible to change her perception of success and find other, more satisfying ways to share and celebrate her accomplishments with her family and friends.

Trust and Reframing

Once the positive intention behind the detrimental behavior has been discovered, resources and alternatives are much more easily found. It is important to have other choices that are at least as effective for fulfilling the positive intention of the problem behavior, in order to appropriately address the obstacle. If there are no alternatives, the risk is that the client will become conflicted internally or become overly rigid or dogmatic.

Rather than feeling mistrustful, guilty or ashamed about difficulties, the recognition of one’s own positive intention leads to trust and gives a specific strategy for finding other alternatives, rather than becoming frustrated with the typical “trial and error” (or “trial and horror” as it is sometimes called) approach.

The reframing process involves understanding and communicating with one’s own thoughts rather than engaging in blaming or punitive behavior. The basic steps involve:

  1. Identifying the problematic feeling, response or behavior. What behavior or response is getting in the way of a client achieving his fitness goals?
  2. Discovering the source of the problematic feeling, response or behavior in his past. When did this pattern of behavior start and what were the conditions under which it began to develop?
  3. Finding the positive intention or motive for the response or behavior. How is that behavior benefitting the client? What does he perceive it to be doing that is at all positive? (This is a particularly difficult idea for many clients.)
  4. Identifying alternatives and resources that address the positive intention, but without the negative consequences. In what other ways can he derive that same benefit? What resources and understanding does he have now that he did not have at the time this pattern started?
  5. Enlisting the cooperation of all of his “inner parts” to try a new choice. Which new alternatives and resources might he be willing to try?

Interrupting Thought Patterns

We are all familiar with clients who would rather make excuses than progress. While it may be a source of extreme frustration for us, we can make a choice. Rather than allowing a client to put so much energy into explaining and complaining of his limitations, a perceptive trainer may simply ask, “Why are you telling me this?

Asking such a question is called a “pattern interruption”, a basic but powerful NLP technique with the goal being to interrupt a pattern of behavior that is problematic for the client. The first time you as a trainer create this mild state of uncertainty, you will be surprised at how your client’s affect abruptly changes, as if he is stuck figuring out what to say next. This brief opening provides you the opportunity to suggest another outcome.

If a client in his 70’s claims, “I am too old to get lean”, you might help reframe his preconceived notion by asking the following questions~

  • According to whom?
  • What are you accomplishing now that you were unable to achieve two months ago?
  • Do you feel stronger than you did when we started training together?
  • How do you feel in your clothes?

Such innocent inquiries take a client from thinking in terms of a general negative statement to the positive visualization /realization of the progress he has made. Allow your client a few moments to process your questions; then, listen intently as he starts to formulate his answers.

Keep the Focus Positive

Gently push your client to talk about what he actually hopes to accomplish by working with you. NLP specifies that one’s goal must be stated in the positive. Very often I encounter clients who explain their current life situation in one of the following two ways. They may easily describe what they are trying to avoid: “I cannot stand to be fat anymore”, or a situation in their life that they find upsetting: “This relationship I am in is just awful.”

Clearly, practice is needed to help such clients grasp how these thought patterns are keeping them steeped in negativity, which thereby stunts their ability to formulate and move forward with goals. Neuro-linguistic programming can be used as a powerful intervention to alter how a client thinks – and ultimately acts – by reframing the individual’s past experiences.

As fitness professionals, the use of NLP as a diagnostic and training tool requires both patience and practice. The fine art of listening seems to be getting obstructed these days by the over-availability of media resources. Many individuals find it easier and more convenient to simply merge with the masses rather than taking the time to respond to the unique skill sets each of us has been given.

Fitness is a complex process. More than merely encompassing the muscular and skeletal structure of the human anatomy, living a “fit” and healthy lifestyle calls for honoring the value of the body as well as facilitating a strong connection between mind and structure.

Fitness training, therefore, may be defined is the art of teaching, supporting and motivating clients to achieve this ultimate goal. Such an endeavor often requires a trainer to look beyond the behavioral aspects of training and delve into the world within a client’s complex mind — often a tangled web of learned negative habits and preconceived notions of “self” — and reframe long-held ideals in an effort to redirect thought patterns. Our job is to reawaken a client’s “inner game”.

Have you had success retraining a client’s thought patterns? Have you used the technique of NLP before?












Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!