Certified Personal Trainer Fitness HIIT plateau stress

Commitment Issues: When Exercise Motivation Hits a Roadblock

National Academy of Sports Medicine
National Academy of Sports Medicine

You can navigate clients past common motivation blockers—here’s how.

In comes the phone call, or maybe a text, your client—the one who did so well in the beginning—is getting in touch to say she won’t make her next session. Then it’s the one after that. When she makes it back, she’s down on herself for her lack of motivation.

Step One: Don’t let your client beat herself up. A study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that even with the best of intentions, exercise motivation fluctuates (1). According to Penn State researchers, it’s not necessarily that some people are motivated and others aren’t. We need to recognize that motivation changes; it’s not static. Some people have weeks when they’re motivated and other weeks when they’re less motivated.

Step Two: Be prepared with motivators you can call into play as needed. With any client, you need to help overcome perceived barriers, notes Darin Padua, PhD, ATC, a professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science and director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here are research-backed and trainer-tested ways to get past some of the common client roadblocks.

Roadblock: Not Enough Time

Solution: Focus on HIIT

Research continues to show that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can yield many of the same health and fitness gains as longer, steady-state programming. One study from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University found that subjects who did two-and-a-half minutes of HIIT (five intense 30-second cycling bursts, followed by four minutes of recovery each time) burned an extra 200 calories on average that day. Other studies have found that even less extreme bursts can help improve fitness levels (2).

“Your clients don’t have to devote a 45-minute block of time to walking on the treadmill on the days they are not with you,” says Padua. They can burn about the same amount of calories and receive the same fitness gains in half the time by doing seven or eight 30- to 60-second intervals, followed by about the same amount of recovery.

Roadblock: Can’t Get to the Gym

Solution: Tap into Technology

“E-coaching has been shown to be effective, as long as you continue interacting with your clients on a regular basis," says Padua. “You can’t just email a plan and tell them to check in with you in six weeks.”

If your clients are local, establish weekly or biweekly face-to-face check-ins to complete assessments, ensure compliance, and answer any questions. If you can’t meet, having regular (daily or weekly) contact electronically can help keep your clients motivated and on track for reaching goals. Some ideas:

  • Use Twitter updates, customized emails or texts to keep clients motivated.
  • Ask clients to report back or to keep an online log tracking their weight, nutrition and exercise habits, or utilize tracking devices and share the results.
  • Set up a Facebook forum. “My clients support each other and speak about their experiences when they’re not at the club,” says Ryan Ehler, director of training at Flex Fitness in Chandler, Ariz.

Roadblock: Boredom

Solution: Think Differently

While it’s important to hold true to your core training values, you can modify the type of training you do—including the exercises, equipment, and environment—to keep your clients’ interest piqued. In fact, one study found that when people were offered a choice of 10 resistance-training tools, they had more fun and cranked out 40% more reps than on days when they were limited to two items.

50% of all adults joining an exercise program will drop out within three to six months.

Roadblock: Stress

Solution: Address It Right Away

“Many of my weight loss clients come to me already feeling pretty stressed out,” says Andrea Barkley, a personal trainer and private cook based in Phoenix. “I try to give them tools to relieve some of that stress, which will ultimately play an important role in helping them lose weight.” (Reducing stress hormones can improve sleep, reduce food cravings, and boost mental focus.) Barkley starts out with deep breathing exercises, which move clients away from “chest breathing” by focusing on moving air in all the way from the diaphragm.

Roadblock: Low Energy

Solution: Get a Music Boost

We all know we can rev up our workout when a good tune comes on. And science supports this strategy: British researchers found that when cyclists listened to upbeat music while exercising, they increased both power output and speed (3). Other studies have found music boosts exercisers' subjective feelings of motivation, so they can push themselves a little further. Offer to set up a motivational playlist for your clients, or share your own feel-good tunes through music sites like Spotify and Pandora. Aim to include music that hits at about 150 to 160 beats per minute (BPM) for high-intensity activities like running, slightly lower for a steadily pace walk or recovery.

Roadblock: Hitting a Plateau

Solution: Rework the Program

If your clients have stopped seeing strength gains (or stopped taking pounds off), it may be time to shake up the routine. One simple way to do this is to consider trying an undulating periodization resistance program. These workouts shift between different loads, reps and sets depending on which day you are working out. For example, you could go with three sets of 10 reps of moderate resistance on Mondays, two sets of 15 reps of light resistance on Wednesdays, and five sets of 6 reps of heavy resistance on Fridays.

Try these Motivators!

  • Fresh Air: Exercising outdoors benefits both the mind and body.
  • Balance Goals: Set long- and short-term goals.
  • Eyes on the Prize: Offer rewards for reaching goals.
  • Finish Strong: Don’t let clients skip their cool down. They’ll remember that last easy, relaxing pace.
  1. Conroy D, Elavsky S, Hyde A, Doerksen S. (2011) The Dynamic Nature of Physical Activity Intentions: A Within-Person Perspective on Intention-Behavior Coupling J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2011 Dec; 33(6): 807–827.
  2. Sevits KJ, Melanson EL, Swibas T, Binns SE, Klochak AL, Lonac MC, Peltonen GL, Scalzo RL, Schweder MM, Smith AM, Wood LM, Melby CL, Bell C. (2013). Total daily energy expenditure is increased following a single bout of sprint interval training. Physiological Reports, 2013 Oct;1(5):e00131. doi: 10.1002/phy2.131.
  3. Waterhouse J, Hudson P, Edwards B. (2010) Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Aug;20(4):662-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.00948


By Alyssa Shaffer


Tags: Certified Personal Trainer Tags: Fitness Tags: HIIT Tags: plateau Tags: stress

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National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

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