CPT American Fitness Magazine

How to Use NLP to Help Clients Overcome Obstacles

Joy Keller
Joy Keller
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It’s an hour before your session starts, and you get a text from your client Kelly, a
33-year-old mom of two who is 50 pounds overweight, has just been diagnosed as
being prediabetic, and is trying to change her lifestyle. She’s late again.
This is not the first time Kelly has been late, and you’ve had “the
conversation” with her about your cancellation policy.

However, your gut tells you that something deeper needs to be addressed if the program you’ve developed for her is to have a chance to work. She’s sabotaging her own efforts, and you want to help her get back on track. As a certified personal trainer, what can you do? Getting a client to adhere to a fitness and wellness program can involve more mind than muscle. This is not something you “push through”; it takes skill, finesse, empathy and rapport. By applying a few simple principles borrowed from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, you may be able to offer Kelly a step up into a new frame of mind—one that will positively affect your session’s outcome as well her ability to stick with the program. 

What Is
Neuro-Linguistic Programming?

NLP is a framework of strategies, ideas and principles that, when
combined with other techniques, can enhance self-awareness and development,
helping clients transform. It was founded in the early 1970s by Richard
Bandler, a student of psychology, and John Grinder, an assistant professor of
linguistics at the University of California (Walter & Bayet 2003). They
worked with anthropologists, linguists and social scientists to establish a
model that would enhance communication, improve personal development and
provide a formula for accelerated learning.

There is no official NLP accreditation, legal affiliation or certification standard. Several different certifying or “affiliation bodies” exist, similar to personal training certification companies, and the industry attempts to govern itself in myriad ways (NLP World 2019). Information about NLP’s basic precepts and how to apply them is readily available; however, it would be inaccurate to call yourself an NLP practitioner without pursuing formal credentials from a respected NLP education body. Therefore, this article shares topline information; it is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of NLP. Always stay within your scope of practice when working with clients.

The Presuppositions of NLP

The following partial list of
Neuro-Linguistic Programming presuppositions may inform you as you help clients
overcome their blocks so they can reach their goals.

You need to assess behavior and change in context.

How many times have you taken something out of context? It’s easy to do! NLP teaches that it’s crucial that we evaluate behavior and change in terms of who our clients are capable of becoming, not who they are in the moment.

Resistance may stem from a lack of rapport or from misunderstanding.

If your client is resistant to your direction, you may need to go back and reassess your foundation, which is rapport.

The map is not the territory.

Clients will respond to their own experiences, not yours! A flat map of the city doesn’t necessarily show topography or potholes, so you have to calibrate as you go along. Since we all experience the world through our filters and belief systems, it’s important to respect each client’s personal “map” of reality, while also helping clients to change maps that aren’t working.

People have all the resources they need to be successful.

Your objective is to help your clients see their own potential and achieve their goals. NLP teaches that everyone has the resources and ability to get what they want in life.

There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.

Failure is a part of life. The important thing is to learn from misfires, take responsibility and move forward. Results from a personal training program provide an opportunity to gain feedback and/or recognize achievements.

Kelly’s Blocks and NLP

Let’s take a look at how you might apply basic NLP techniques to your
work with Kelly. Your main concerns about her progress are these:

  • She’s consistently late to sessions or she cancels at the last minute. She has pre­-
    purchased 30 sessions, which signifies a commitment on her part, and you’d like to support her in following through.
  • She routinely talks down about herself during sessions, berating herself for not being able to do something “the right way,” in spite of your constant encouragement and positive feedback.
  • She is being treated for depression, which also seems to affect her ability to stay within the healthy eating parameters given to her by the registered dietitian she works with.

The following NLP processes can help Kelly shift her mindset and better
enjoy her personal training sessions, which is likely to lead to a healthier
outlook on life as she progresses.


Without a foundation of trust and safety, there’s not much room for expansion. This is why rapport is so important. In NLP, rapport is “the ability to relate to others in a way that creates trust and understanding . . . the ability to see the other’s point of view and get them to understand yours” without the need to agree, which makes communication smoother (NLP Mentor 2015). Once you have rapport with Kelly, you’re in a more influential position.

According to the Academy of Leadership Coaching & NLP (ALCN 2019),
common communication blocks in a client-coach relationship include
solution-giving, such as lecturing and unsolicited advice; being judgmental
(“Why did you drink that sugary energy drink before our session?”); and
denying, such as refusing to discuss a relevant matter—for example,
delayed-onset muscle soreness—that’s important to the client. Start your
rapport-building by assessing whether or not you’re blocking clear
communication, and take steps to address any blocks before attempting to build

Matching is one method many NLP practitioners use to build rapport with clients. This includes the following:

  • Try syncing with a client’s body language, including gestures and posture, in a subtle, not mimicking, manner (Sandoval & Adams 2013). You may already do this naturally! An example: If Kelly has her hand on her hip while explaining to you how frustrated she’s been with her progress, gently place your hand on your own hip to send a subconscious signal that you’re on the same team.
  • Language matching is also a powerful tool. When sharing experiences, we all rely on the visual, auditory or kinesthetic representational system to communicate. For example, if Kelly’s predominant representational system is visual, she might say, “Oh, okay, I see what you mean.” On the other hand, if she leans more toward being auditory, she’ll say, “Yes, that sounds good to me.” If she’s more oriented to being kinesthetic, she might say, “I’ll get in touch with you.” If you can conform your language to the client’s preferred representational system, rapport becomes easier (Sandoval & Adams 2013).
  • Other ways to build rapport include being honest, reliable and transparent (ALCN 2019). You can also try matching breathing patterns, as well as the pace, volume, pitch and tone of the client’s speech (NLP Mentor 2015).

Once you have established rapport with Kelly, you’ll be able to coach
her through the sabotaging behavior, such as her chronic tardiness. She’ll
likely feel a stronger connection with you and want to arrive on time for her

Mental Maps

We each have a unique way of viewing the world and filtering sensory input. This, in essence, is a mental map. Our mental maps are generated from our life experiences, and how we perceive those experiences adds color. You might even call a mental map a “fingerprint,” as no one else has the exact same worldview. It is from our mental maps that we draw conclusions, form opinions and make assumptions.

Kelly has a few rigid mind maps. One of them is that she feels utterly
defeated and believes she’ll always be “trapped” inside a larger-sized body,
which feels very uncomfortable to her. She does not respond to positive reinforcement
or encouragement. Following are two methods to help her pivot out of her mental

  • NLP teaches that feelings of mistrust, anxiety and stress are temporary. We can transmute them! The disassociation technique can help. First, guide Kelly to close her eyes and identify the emotion she wants to change—in this case, feeling defeated. Ask her to focus on that feeling and a situation that triggers it, such as not being able to complete the requested sets and reps. Guide her to “step out” of herself and visualize the experience as if it were a scene in a movie. Repeat this scene several times until the charge lessens, and then have Kelly take a breath, return to her body and open her eyes. The goal is to calm the nervous system and teach an alternate way of viewing a situation: from a different, more objective perspective. 
  • Content reframing is another technique that may nudge Kelly’s attention toward something more positive. Essentially, it involves “switching the cognitive channel” from a negative loop and/or fear to something neutral or better. Let’s say she’s hyperfocusing on the fact that her weight loss has plateaued the past couple of weeks, and she’s going down the proverbial rabbit hole. Bring up all the progress she’s made and gently encourage her to focus on that. For example, you could say, “You’ve dramatically increased your endurance, Kelly, and you’re also lifting heavier weights than before. This is all excellent progress that positively affects your body composition.”

Remember that mental maps vary from client to client. The better able
you are to pinpoint and understand someone’s unique worldview, the more
effective you will be as a personal trainer and coach—and your ability to
communicate will excel. Mental maps can improve as new experiences and
information flow in, which is part of the journey. The more failure, the more
data, and the more chance to change.

Adding Tools to the Toolbox

Being a successful personal trainer involves much more than putting
together the perfect movement program. If clients are experiencing mental
blocks, they’re not going to have the bandwidth to focus on your planks and
squats. Help clients unlock their potential by learning more about NLP and
other behavior change strategies, so that you can excel in your career and be
an agent of positive change for years to come.

Motivate, Inspire and Empower Your Clients

Creating long-lasting healthy lifestyle changes, just like designing fitness programs, requires a progressive and structured approach. Learn to use the practical evidence-based principles and coaching techniques of the NASM Behavior Change Specialization. The NASM-BCS helps personal trainers and fitness and wellness professionals learn to apply various behavior change techniques, identify their clients’ barriers to success and motivational triggers, and connect clients to strategies that can help them achieve their goals and maintain their results.

This online course shows you how to:

  • apply the appropriate behavior change intervention strategies that align with your clients’ personality influences and their readiness to change;
  • pinpoint motivational triggers and guide your clients to discovering their greatest barriers to change, then identify ways to move beyond these obstacles;
  • incorporate behavior change solutions that can yield quicker, more effective results while increasing client retention rates; and
  • adjust behavior change approaches as your clients progress.

Earn 1.9 NASM CEUs.

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ALCN (Academy of Leadership Coaching &
NLP). 2019. The art of building rapport. Accessed July 2019:

NLP Mentor. 2015. NLP rapport—creating trust
and understanding. Accessed July 2019: nlp-mentor.com/nlp-rapport/.

NLP World. 2019. NLP practitioner standards.
Accessed July 2019: nlpworld.co.uk/nlp-affiliation-aip-anlp-abnlp-inlpta/.

Sandoval, V.A., & Adams, S.H. 2013.
Subtle skills for building rapport. NLP Comprehensive. Accessed July 2019:

Walter, J., & Bayat, A. 2003. Neurolinguistic
programming: Verbal communication. BMJ, 326 (7389), S83.

The Author

Joy Keller

Joy Keller

Joy Keller is editor in chief of American Fitness magazine, and is also a certified fitness professional. She is currently adding to her skillset by completing her NLP certification.

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