Weight Loss Nutrition

Helping a Client Set Realistic Weight Loss Goals

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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Most clients have a goal in mind when they start working with a personal trainer. As trainers, our main objective is to help our clients reach their goals safely and efficiently. We'll do everything we can to help our clients, but what if their goal isn't feasible? We’ve all had an initial consultation that sounds something like this:

Trainer: "It's so nice to meet you finally. I want to learn more about how I can help you. What prompted you to start working with a trainer?"

Client: “I’ve made some progress on my own, but I need some help losing the last 15 pounds.”

Trainer: “Congratulations on your success so far! I would love to help you with your goal. Did you have a timeline in mind?”

Client: "I need to lose the last 15 by next month. I've got an event to go to. Is that possible?"


Another common scenario is the brand-new client who is eager to do too much too soon.

Client, after telling you they haven’t worked out in a year: "I'd like to work out with you five days a week, I'm going to start walking 10,000 steps a day, and I start my new diet tomorrow. It will be tough, but I'm up for the challenge!"

As personal trainers, it's our job to help our clients set themselves up for success. To do so, we need to understand what's realistic and how we can best help our clients set goals that they can achieve in a reasonable amount of time.

The information found within this blog draws from the Weight Loss Specialization and NASM-CPT course.


First, let's review some goal-setting basics. When setting goals with your clients, it's best to set a SMART goal. SMART goals are:

Specific – What is the outcome your client wants to achieve?

Measurable – How will you measure this goal?

Action-oriented – What action will you take to achieve this goal?

Realistic – Is this goal realistic for this client at this time?

Time-bound – How long will it take to accomplish this goal?

An example of a well-written SMART goal is "I will attend three workouts per week over the next month." This goal is specific (the goal is to attend workouts), measurable (measuring workout attendance), action-oriented (focused on performing the workouts), realistic (the client has stated that the workouts are scheduled and prioritized), and time-bound (completed over a month). We can see by the goal statement exactly how much of what the client plans to do by when.

In the goal-setting process, it can help your client start with the outcome that they'd like to achieve (for example, a weight loss goal or a performance goal) and then discuss what they'll need to do to work toward that goal. For instance, if your client’s goal is weight loss, we know that we need to set SMART goals for nutrition and exercise. This approach will help your client take intentional steps toward achieving their goal.

Calculating Ideal Body Weight

You can learn more about this topic and find a great calorie calculator by following the link.

Most trainers work with clients who list weight loss as their primary goal. Your client may know that they want to/need to lose weight to get healthier, but they might not have a good idea of what a healthy body weight is for them. When this is the case, clients may choose an arbitrary number for their weight loss goal based on what they weighed years prior or a weight that “sounds good” for any particular reason.

This can be particularly problematic if this number is not healthy for your client. Choosing an unrealistic or unhealthy weight loss goal can lead to disappointment and discouragement, ultimately leading to the client discontinuing the training program. A better way to approach a weight loss goal is to choose a goal body fat percentage range for your client to help them achieve a healthy weight. Once you’ve landed on a goal body fat percentage range, you can calculate the client’s ideal body weight based using this range.

What you need to know for this calculation: your client’s current weight, current body fat percentage, and goal body fat percentage (you can use a range rather than one specific number).

Ideal Body Weight Calculation:

Step 1: 100% - Body fat percentage = Lean mass percentage.

Step 2: Bodyweight x lean mass percentage = Lean mass.

Step 3: 100- Desired body fat percentage = Desired lean mass percent -Calculate upper and lower limit if using a range (for example, 25-27% for a 35-year-old woman).

Step 4: (Lean body mass) (Desired lean body mass percentage)= Desired body weight -Calculate upper and lower limit if using a range.

Here’s how to use this equation for a 34-year-old woman who weighs 157 pounds with a body fat percentage of 34.6%. She would like to be in the 27-30% body fat range, which would put her in the normal range for women in her age group.

Step 1: 100 - 34.6 = 65.4% (lean mass %)

Step 2: 157 x .654 = 102.7 lb (lean mass pounds)

Step 3: For 27-30% body fat goal

100-30 = 70% (desired lean mass percentage, upper limit)

100-27 = 73% (desired lean mass percentage, lower limit)

Step 4: 102.7/.7 = 146.7 pounds (upper limit)

102.7/.73 = 140.7 pounds (lower limit)

To achieve a body fat percentage of 27-30%, the client would weigh 140.7 – 146.7 pounds.

Timeline for healthy weight loss

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked during an initial consultation is, “How long before I see results?” This can be a complicated question because it depends on a variety of factors like compliance to the nutrition program and workout regimen. That being said, there are some general timelines that you can share with a client when it comes to weight loss.

For clients with a BMI over 25, the American College of Sports Medicine (2014) recommends an initial weight loss of 5-10% of body weight over a 3-to-6-month window. After that, or for clients with a BMI below 25, the CDC states that healthy weight loss occurs at a rate of about 1 to 2 pounds per week.

This is the recommended rate for losing weight to promote sustained weight loss over time. Therefore, if your client has a weight loss goal of 20 pounds, they can expect it to take 10-20 weeks, depending on their weight loss rate.

Understanding this general timeline can help you set your client's expectations for how long it might take them to see the results they're looking for. This can be a tough conversation if your client was hoping for fast results, but you must get on the same page as quickly as possible to avoid disappointment down the road.

Some clients might try to pressure you to find shortcuts to speed up the process, but it's our responsibility to keep their long-term health in mind when helping them work toward their goals. As incredible as it might be to see a client crush their goal in half the time, it's even more painful to see them backslide and re-gain the weight they worked so hard to lose because the pace was not sustainable long-term.

Performance Goals

Clients may also come in with specific performance goals in mind. For example, your client might have an athletic event coming up, or maybe they want to be able to bench press a specific amount. There isn’t a defined way to measure how realistic a performance goal is, but you might be able to help your client understand how long it might take them to reach their goal with consistent training.

This is where NASM’s Optimum Performance Training (OPT) Model comes in handy. No matter what performance goal your client has, you can use the OPT Model to design a program that will help get them there safely, timely, and organized.

A best-case scenario would be a performance goal with an open timeline. This will allow you as the fitness professional to plan out a program that will enable your client to progress safely while still heading toward their goal. Because you know that clients spend about four weeks in each phase, it's easy to predict a general timeline for how long it will take your client to achieve their performance goal based on the number of training phases they would need to complete to reach their goal.

Similar to weight loss, this timeline is dependent on how well your client responds to training, what their starting point is relative to their goal, and how consistent they are with their training schedule. It’s normal to have some hiccups in the form of schedule changes or life events, but you can still give your client a general timeline to keep in mind and help them set their expectations accordingly. Measuring progress along the way (based on their performance goal) will help you and your client track progress and adjust the training program as needed.

Focus on one goal at a time

For your client to achieve their main outcome goal of weight loss, or improved performance, etc., there will likely be many healthy behaviors that your client needs to master along the way to make it happen. This means that their primary outcome probably includes several process goals to help them get there. An outcome goal focuses on where the client is going, and the process goals focus on precisely how they will get there.

For example, let’s say your client wants to lose 15 pounds in 3 months. Your client will likely need to focus on both physical activity and nutrition to reach this goal. After discussing their current lifestyle, you might determine that they need to focus on staying active outside of their three workouts per week with you since they spend most of their time seated at work.

This means that outside of the gym, they will be working on tracking physical activity and tracking their nutrition to help them achieve their weight loss goal. This kind of lifestyle change is entirely reasonable but not necessarily easy to adopt. Because most outcomes require behavior change in more than one area, it’s best to devise a plan to help your client make their plan of attack realistic to accomplish.

The truth is, trying to accomplish all of the goals all at once isn't realistic for anyone. It’s much better to tackle one goal at a time to practice mastery before moving onto the next one. Your client has a workout goal, a nutrition goal, and a daily steps goal. Have your client order these goals from the easiest to the hardest to accomplish. Have your client start with the goal that feels the easiest for them to achieve first to get a quick win at the beginning.

Once they’ve mastered that goal, continue to hold them accountable to their newly accomplished goal while helping them work toward conquering the next goal. Continue this process until they’re successfully performing all of the target behaviors consistently. Not only will your client be excited about reaching their goals, but they'll also reap the health benefits associated with each of their goals and start to feel great!

Another way to manage multiple goals is to have two focus points: one goal inside the gym with you and one goal that they focus on as 'homework.' Using the same example from above, if one of their goals is to attend a certain number of workouts per week, you can help them devise a scheduling plan that’s realistic for them and help to hold them accountable. Additionally, they'll rely on you to write the workouts to help them see the results they desire.

As homework, your client could decide between nutrition or daily steps as their first homework goal. Have the client master one homework goal at a time until they are consistently performing all of those goals together. Practically speaking, your client will want to take 2-4 weeks to develop their new habit so that they’re consistently reaching their goal before adding something new.

Bottom line

Having a better understanding of setting realistic goals can help you set yourself and your clients up for success at the beginning of the program. When your client is looking for results that last, you and your client will need to set realistic and sustainable goals.

If the client doesn't think that they can or want to perform their goals on a long-term basis, it's reasonable to question whether they are the client's right goals. Having results that last will require long-term lifestyle changes. If the client doesn't think they can keep up their new routine, find small ways to tweak it until it fits your client's needs. This might impact their outcome, but they will be more likely to sustain the results that they achieve.


American College of Sports Medicine (2014). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (9th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August 17). Losing weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html.

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.

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