Every personal trainer has his or her own personal training style, or typical approach, taken with clients, or perhaps, each trainer takes a different approach with each client based on differing needs and expectations. So how do you know what kind of approach will work with a particular client?

Tough Love?

“Is that all you’ve got? Come on! PUSH HARDER!” Most of us have borne witness to these training tactics (Biggest Loser, anyone?). A client looks ready to drop, sweat oozing out of every pore, totally and clearly depleted…yet the trainer continues to yell, “You have NOT finished the set yet! You have to keep going until you pound out four more burpees!”

Such training tactics, commonly known as “tough love” is definitely not a cookie-cutter template to suit every client’s needs. In terms of personal training, this training style indeed pushes a client to their limits, yet may come across as unnecessarily harsh or authoritarian to many clients.

Thriving Under Pressure

Witnessing this sort of interaction may strike the casual observer as brutal, if not cruel and or utterly unnecessary. The client may be regarded as a “victim” rather than someone who willingly paid for the trainer’s services. However, upon conversing with this client afterwards in the locker room, the observer might learn that the client LOVED his workout and plans to continue working with his tyrannical trainer!

Those individuals who tolerate such training protocols report needing someone to push them, often acknowledging having made very little progress either on their own or with a kinder, gentler personal trainer. These clients view “tough love” as a kick-in-the-butt reminder of what it feels like to work really hard. As soon as the post-workout endorphins kick in, they can somehow pardon the yelling and harsh words.


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Communication and Willing Participation

While such individuals who prefer this sort of sadistic coaching do exist, identifying them in advance of training is a certain a challenge. How can a trainer possibly determine whether his or her domineering methods will work for a particular client? Some clients will tell you right out of the gate that this is a training style they want or don’t want during your very first encounter, perhaps because they’ve worked with trainers before and know what they need to motivate. But what about those who are new to training all together?

The answer depends to a large extent on the client-trainer relationship established along the way, and how comfortable a client feels expressing himself honestly. According to sports psychologist Jo Lukins, it does not take long for a client to know whether or not “tough love” can work for him. “If you feel it enhances your performance, then it will work well for you”, she notes. Good, clear communication between trainer and client must play a primary role in such a relationship.

Lukins stresses remaining true to one’s feelings. If the “tough love” training concept makes the client uncomfortable, cutting ties with the trainer preceded by a clear explanation of his feelings remains the best option for both parties.

Trainers often naively assume that everyone receives “tough love” in a positive light. Some trainers couch this under the guise of holding clients accountable for their actions. When encountering clients who complain about health issues and subpar gym performance, yet refuse to change their unhealthy behaviors, trainers feel compelled to push harder. This could come from a place of frustration on the trainer’s part, or a desire to make the client work in an unreasonable manner, to convey the point of how his lifestyle thwarts his progress in the gym.

Does a “Bullying” Training Style Actually Work?

According to sports psychologist and executive coach Graham Jones, star athletes and business people share one defining trait: mental toughness. Champions and elite leaders in the business arena do not start their careers any more gifted than their colleagues or team members. Rather, they have discovered within themselves how best to manage pressure, tackle obstacles to reach desired goals, and what it takes to remain one step ahead of their competition.

Having worked with various Olympic sports stars as well as leaders in Fortune 500 companies, Jones observed a number of parallels, most notably in how such individuals have propelled themselves to the top of their fields.Could a “tough love” training approach foster this type of excellence? Afterall, this is how many  generations of yore were coached during their childhood sports experiences.

One research study undertook the task of evaluating the influence of a trainer’s interpersonal approach to her clients, recruiting over 300 athletes. The scientists specifically analyzed character traits among coaches such as providing support in conjunction with autonomy versus a more punitive, controlling style, and then looked at their effects on an athlete’s resulting levels of frustration, motivation, and resilience.

It came as little surprise to discover a positive correlation with coaches offering support/autonomy with motivation and resilience; athletes trained in this fashion felt the coaches fully addressed their psychological needs as well as their sports performance. This result appeared in sharp contrast to that reported by subjects trained with a “tough love”c approach.

Another similar experiment involving over 1000 athletes aimed to examine a trainer’s tactics with an athlete’s coping skills and emotional health. Once again, the data indicated that a more controlling training approach led to anxiety, stress, and even depression among the athletes, thereby undermining their abilities to excel. When client-trainer interactions reflected mutual respect, athletes reported a greater sense of resiliency in the face of challenges.

Most personal trainers do not find themselves in a position of grooming a client for the Olympic Games. However, even for the casual recreational fitness enthusiast, taking into consideration how our tactics might affect a client’s emotional state during and even following a workout session goes a long way in creating a positive working relationship.

Prioritizing the Client

Having the client’s best interest in mind should always remain a top priority for personal trainers; therefore, prior to implementing on a “tough love” training style, professionals should remind themselves of the difference between the client’s best interests and their own. Very often these two ideals clash.

Trainers ought not underestimate the importance of tiptoeing into this minefield, realizing that such tactics may damage the first impression of a client new to exercise and personal training. Keep in mind that aggression quickly turns training into bullying, regardless of the trainer’s intent to motivate. Feeling responsible for a timid client quitting the gym could create unwanted and unnecessary emotional baggage for the trainer.

Setting Unrealistic Goals

Often a trainer tells a client, “I know your muscles still ache from our last session. You need to keep working through the discomfort if you want real results!”  This training style could easily backfire, setting a client up for failure or potential injury. Insisting on overly lofty goals that a client cannot possibly reach, and then chastising her for falling short, almost never turns out well for either party.

If a trainer does prefer a style of “tough love” to advance client’s goals, keep the following ideals in mind:

  • Clearly outline the reasons for such an approach at the beginning of the training relationship
  • Find ways to adapt training techniques if the “tough love” tactic does not seem effective
  • Practice what you preach…and always listen to the client’s comments throughout a session

Overly abrasive and punitive training often reflects a coach taking advantage of the overall imbalance of power between trainer and client. A personal trainer who abuses the “tough love” platform runs the risk of crushing the spirit of the emerging athlete inside the client; a dedicated and knowledgeable personal trainer challenges the budding athlete inside, encouraging growth and development in a positive manner.

Always know your audience, and cater to their individual needs in the most mutually acceptable fashion. Then, watch your personal training business blossom while also keeping your clients happy and achieving their goals utilizing a training style that is most compatible with your clients.
















Cathleen Kronemer

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 trainhard@kronemer.com. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!