Goal setting is an important aspect of personal training and the client-trainer relationship. Setting goals is crucial as they outline a road map of where the client wishes to go and, more importantly, how the client will achieve a desired outcome. As important as the goals are themselves, the process by which goals are set is just as critical. Here’s what to consider when working with your clients to identify desired results.

Goals are Unique to the Client

Personal trainers are talented at visualizing what a client needs to do in order to make positive changes and achieve the outcomes they so desire. However, it is not the personal trainer’s job to set a goal for his or her clients. Instead, personal trainers must aim to set goals with his or her clients. Goal setting is a partnership that is successfully forged when the client identifies areas of struggle and strife while the personal trainer helps the client clearly and specifically articulate processes focused on overcoming those struggles.

It’s important for a trainer to keep in mind that each client will have specific and unique needs. Imposing universally applied goals to each client will be ineffective and overlook each client’s idiosyncrasies important to goal achievement.

For example, a client may score poorly on a muscular endurance assessment. You, as the trainer, will likely see this as an area with potential for improvement (which isn’t wrong). However, the client may see his or her most significant weakness as simply making it to the gym consistently. While you may prefer to target a client’s need to boost endurance, this client will require a different focus – one that is centered on frequency of attendance.

In other words, this client may not see a need to tackle his or her lack of endurance as a primary objective, at least not right away. To remain within your scope of practice, avoid pushing your personal preferences for fitness goals on clients who do not seek out those same goals.

Helping Fitness Clients Set Effective Goals

To help clients set a goal, you must first engage the client in a thoughtful and strategic conversation that will ultimately reveal your client’s preferences and needs. The most beneficial way to accomplish this is to engage in motivational interviewing with your client.

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a conversation style that involves guiding, encouraging, and supporting the client as he or she begins the behavior change journey.

This style of communication uses a variety of open-ended questions designed to motivate and encourage the client to “dig deep” into his or her reasons for wanting to make necessary lifestyle changes. MI is not a directive approach; it’s a guiding approach. In this style, the personal trainer does not direct or command a client to make specific changes. Instead, the personal trainer will help the client explore his or her intentions and even ambivalence towards change.

Setting SMART-ER Goals

It’s not enough for a client to simply say “I want to lose X amount of weight” or “I want to improve my muscle definition”. A goal needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, reward-based, and time-defined. The client will also need to identify and define resources that will support the achievement of that goal (external resources – the ER in SMART-ER).

Once a client has identified a few areas for improvement and you’ve objectively listened and reflected back to the client his or her intentions, you can begin assisting the client in applying the SMART-ER goal setting process.

By applying this process, you can help your clients thoughtfully and intentionally identify necessary areas for change and craft goals that are unique to their change journey. After collaborating on goal identification, help your client determine an effective tracking system. Yes, you will have your own method for tracking progress, but the client will also benefit from using a system that is personally meaningful to him or her. Be sure to have that conversation with your clients.

Goal setting is not an exercise completed in isolation by the client or as a way of imposing certain expectations upon a client because you feel it’s in his or her best interests. It’s a collaborative process that requires your facilitation and objective, nonjudgmental guidance. If you view goal setting as a partnership, you will be that much more integral to your clients’ success inside and outside the gym.



Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com