How to Get Your Training Clients in 'The Zone' and Engaged

Pete McCall
Pete McCall
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Strategies to Keep Clients Engaged

A common misperception of fitness professionals is that we are merely
rep counters, meaning that all we do is shuffle clients from one exercise to
the next. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The reality is that NASM Certified Personal Trainers have the skills to assess a client's movement to identify any possible muscle imbalances that could cause injuries. Also, they know how to use the NASM Optimal Performance Training™ (OPT™) Model to design an exercise program that can help a client meet his or her goals in the most efficient manner possible.

Finally, to help clients achieve long term success, many personal trainers develop the ability to engage clients in a way that can successfully help them change their behaviors so that exercise does indeed become a regular habit. However, when working long hours on a fitness floor and seeing one client right after the other, it can be easy to fall into a rhythm where the skillful practice of client engagement is overlooked.

Don't let yourself fall into this trap!

During a long day at work, it can be easy to make one training session slip to the next with a little more than a greeting at the beginning and a quick high-five at the end. Having the skills to engage your clients successfully can help them reach their goals while at the same time, improving your business. Having specific strategies for engaging clients during a workout can help you avoid the revolving door where you trade one client for the next with little meaningful interaction.

The good news is that it is indeed possible to engage your clients in a way that has them looking forward to each training session if you know how to help your clients reach a state of Flow.

The Flow State

When competing, athletes strive to achieve what they call “the zone,” which occurs when playing is effortless, actions happen automatically, and time passes quickly.

The zone is not a mythical space; it is formally known as the Flow State. The good news is that anyone can achieve Flow, not just athletes. Understanding the characteristics of the Flow State and the conditions necessary to reach it can help you to create a positive and engaging experience for your clients every training session.

The Flow State, identified by psychology professor Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, occurs when individuals become fully immersed in the actions of the present moment. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has identified specific qualities and conditions of the Flow State. They can be described as, "The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a high cost for the sheer sake of doing it. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The Flow State is where peak performance intersects with peak experience to create a situation of intense focus. This makes it uniquely suited for working with clients because that is what we are trying to do with their exercise programs.

Think of your own workouts when you have been challenged to lift a
certain amount of weight, perform a certain number of repetitions, or run a
certain distance. You may have become so immersed in what you were doing that
you didn't notice as time passed. All of a sudden, the workout was over, and
you were drenched in a puddle of sweat.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to create a Flow State for your clients, so they become fully immersed and engaged in the training session?

Reaching this state can help eliminate distracting thoughts, so the world outside the gym stays outside the gym, and your clients can focus on completing the exercise program you designed.

5 Characteristics of the Flow State

Exercise is a positive experience, and an appropriately challenging
workout can meet all of the following characteristics of the Flow State:

1. Sense of control over performance and outcome

The feeling that one's actions have a direct impact on the result of a
performance. It can be hard for clients who work for a demanding boss or take
care of a busy home to have a sense of control over their lives. A personal
training session is a time during the day when a client can have complete
control over their performance and outcome.

2. Concentration on the task at hand

During a workout, a client should be able to focus with no distractions
from co-workers, family members, or social media. One of the best ways to
engage a client is to allow them to be selfish and focus on their own needs for
an hour so they can get the most significant benefits from the workout. As a
personal trainer, you should direct your client's focus to the exercises in
their program, which can help them eliminate outside distractions.

3. Loss of self-consciousness

The focus on reaching a well-defined outcome creates intense inner
clarity; a client should know what needs to be done and receive immediate
feedback on performance. Setting a specific, tangible goal at the start of the
training session, like performing a particular number of sets, hitting all of
the exercises in the program, or maintaining a specific heart rate are all ways
to redirect focus.

4. Action and awareness emerging

This is the state of total absorption, a feeling of ‘being at one’ with
the activity. The power of a well-designed exercise program is that a client is
so focused on completing all of the exercises and repetitions assigned for the
workout that he or she is completely engaged.

5. Transformation of time

An intense focus on the activity leads to a loss of awareness of the passing of time. Engaging clients with a challenging but safe, exercise program can have them so focused on their activities that they don't even pay attention to the clock until it's time to schedule the next session and head to the locker room.

Being in Flow isn't just about feelings. Specific chemical changes are happening in your client's body. While exercising, the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine fuel muscle activity. Still, they also help the brain to focus specifically on the task at hand. Dopamine promotes feelings of well-being while also playing a role in assisting the neurons in functioning in pattern recognition; one benefit is a 'rush' of positive feeling when specific patterns repeat. In this sense, dopamine performs 'double duty.' If it is produced as the nervous system works to learn and repeat movement patterns, it is creating a pleasurable learning experience (Kotler, 2014). 

Creating Flow in your Workout Programs

Mind-body connections don’t just happen in a yoga studio; any form of
exercise requires a specific mindset and focus on the task being performed.
When a client is focused on a challenging workout, he or she won't have time to
be distracted by outside issues at home or work. The result is that exercise
becomes the escape from their daily grind. Combine this with the
neurotransmitters that produce positive feelings, and it is easy to see how it
is possible to make exercise a pleasurable and utterly engaging experience.

According to research on the Flow State, it is possible to identify specific actions that you can use to engage your clients and help them to achieve Flow during their workouts. Going through the motions of an exercise won't cut it; it's crucial to safely challenge them to work harder than they're able to, an essential prerequisite for achieving Flow.

1. Challenge skills balance:

An activity should challenge clients' existing
skill levels, so they have to focus on working at a level above his or her
existing capacity. The benefits are that attempting more challenging exercises
will not only help to develop new skills, but the client will be so fully
immersed that he or she won't even realize how quickly time is passing.

This is where the Stabilization phase of the NASM OPT™ Model can be beneficial. Many clients will comment that they don’t have good balance; however, by challenging them with stabilization exercises that are only slightly outside of their current skill level can help initiate Flow. For example, a single-leg, single-arm cable row is a great way to improve balance and strength at the same time, and for many clients, it will indeed be a stretch beyond their existing abilities.

2. Set clear goals:

The pursuit of a specific, well-defined goal brings attentional focus and awareness, causing one to forget everything else momentarily. Establish clear goals at the start of each workout, such as a specific number of repetitions, an exact amount of weight to be lifted, the amount of time at a target heart rate, performing a certain number of intervals, or traveling a set distance. These can all provide clear, easy-to-quantify goals. At the beginning of the workout, show the client the OPT™ Model template you've created, and challenge them to complete every rep of every exercise. The client will be so focused on the goal, he or she will be sure to tap into the Flow State.

3. Unambiguous feedback:

Setting a goal for the workout and tracking
progress provides unambiguous feedback that could help trigger flow. Provide
specific feedback on the client's performance, so he or she knows whether it is
possible to hit the goal you established at the start of the session. If you
challenged a client to complete the entire workout, let him or her know how
much they've done and how much more is left each time they start a new
exercise. This will help both of you to stay engaged entirely.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s observations about the flow state, “Experiencing flow encourages a person to persist at and return to an activity because of the experiential rewards it promises, and thereby fosters the growth of skills over time” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). The more you can help your clients reach the Flow State when they exercise, the more engaged they will be, and the entire experience will be significantly more enjoyable.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow. New York, NY. Harper Collins.

Kotler, S. ( 2014). The Rise of Superman. Seattle, WA. Amazon.

Kotler, S. and Wheal, J. (2017) Stealing Fire. New York, NY.
Harper Collins.

Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009) “The Concept of Flow.” In
Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Ed.). Oxford Handbook of Positive
. Oxford University Press. 89-105.

The Author

Pete McCall

Pete McCall

Pete McCall is a NASM-CPT, PES, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), international presenter, host of the All About Fitness podcast, fitness blogger and an author of several articles, textbook chapters and the book Smarter Workouts: the Science of Exercise Made Simple. In addition, Pete holds a master’s degree in exercise science and has been educating fitness professionals for more than 15 years. Currently Pete lives in Encinitas, CA where he is an education consultant and content creator for Core Health & Fitness, Terra Core Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness.


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