5 Surprising Reasons Your Female Fitness Client is Struggling
Does this situation sound familiar?
A client comes to you, pumped up and excited about getting back into a training program. You develop a fantastic program to help her get the exact results she’s looking for. She loves it and starts out enthusiastically. And then…
… her motivation fizzles.
She starts coming in late or canceling altogether.
She isn’t following through on the recommendations you’re giving her.
Maybe she even starts expressing doubts, like…
- “Maybe this is just too much for me right now…”
- “I think this might not be the right time…”
- “I don’t know if I can keep this up…”
- “Sure, I guess I could probably do that… but…”
You’ve done everything you can to help your client… why can’t she stick with it?
If this scenario is hitting home (maybe you’re even thinking of a client or two in particular), I get it. It can be puzzling and flat-out frustrating when this happens! And maybe that little voice inside your head is thinking, “Is it my fault?”
But here’s the thing: your client’s “excuses” are likely legitimate roadblocks to her adherence.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that lack of consistency (or feeling stuck, or losing motivation…) is often more than what it seems. There are a lot of deeper, surprising, invisible reasons why she’s not doing what you’re asking her to.
In this article, I’m going to talk about five of the biggest, most important barriers that might be holding your client back:
- Identity conflict
- Lack of confidence
- Lack of belonging
- Judgments and expectations
- Emotional labor
… and what YOU can do to help her overcome them.
You might be surprised at how familiar these sound (especially if you’re a woman), or even realize that these same roadblocks may be hindering you in some aspect of your life.
Notice anything in common about these five roadblocks? (And here’s where they get a bit tricky…)
At first glance, they’re all invisible.
These barriers are often internal, and in some cases, they’ve become part of our client’s identity.
Clearing these roadblocks will help your client make more consistent progress.
That means you have the opportunity to make a tremendous difference in your client’s life.
For each one of the roadblocks I’m talking about, you’ll learn:
- What the roadblock is.
- What it looks like in action.
- Exactly what YOU can do to help empower your client to bust through these obstacles.
You can also use these tools to influence positive change in your training environment as well as the industry as a whole.
Challenge #1: Your Client Is Experiencing Identity Conflict
As strange as it may sound to a fitness professional, a client’s perception of herself can be a roadblock. For example, if a client begins seeing her main identity as “mom,” it can be challenging to remain consistent with something that sits outside of that identity box.
If being active and fit is a stark contrast to how she identifies herself, getting into the groove of exercise may be difficult.
You might hear her say things like:
- “I’m just a mom, my life revolves around my kids.”
- “I don’t belong in the gym with all these fit people.”
- “I have a really busy job, so I don’t really have time to do anything else.”
- “I’m a couch potato.”
These are signs of an identity roadblock.
Luckily, you can help your clients break out of this.
Help your client identify the beliefs she holds about herself. When she starts to recognize how they influence her actions, she can take steps to move past them — and toward her goals.
Recognize and acknowledge that she is stepping out of her comfort zone, and that it’s a great thing!
You could even say something like:
“I totally understand, this is so new and different from what you’ve done before. I can see why it would feel strange! I just want you to know that you’re doing something great, and the fact that you’re stepping into this new adventure speaks volumes about who you are as a person. Kudos to you for being here!”
Here are four coaching strategies you can use:
Ask questions about what her internal dialogue is telling her concerning who she is and how she should act. Pay close attention to how she responds.
Focus on New Habits
Work with your client to establish new, healthy habits and goals. Start small, and pick a habit that she feels confident she can put into place. If she is able to shift her focus to these new habits and markers of success, she can start moving away from old beliefs that may be holding her training back.
Here’s an example from Stephanie Doyle, a personal trainer and GGS-1 grad, of how she’s put this tip into action:
“I have a client who’s considered herself ‘fat’ since high school. She’s always either been trying to lose weight or thinking about the next diet. She has never been happy with her weight, not even when she reached her target. She isn’t overweight.
When we started working together, she was very self-conscious and had a lot of negative feelings about her looks and self-worth. I encouraged her to choose goals for working together that weren’t appearance-based or weight loss-based. Within a few weeks, she noticed she had more energy and better sleep and mood. She was eating better, too. She realized that because of how awesome she feels now, her weight doesn’t matter anymore.”
By asking questions about non-weight-related improvements and setting up different types of goals, Stephanie helped her client break free from a self-limiting belief.
Check in about how your client is feeling and make sure that the program is working for her. The question “How’s that working for you?” when asked sincerely can be a powerful coaching tool to help your client explore what she’s done so far.
Help your client consider how becoming a healthier version of herself can help serve the purpose of who she is. For example, will the “dedicated mom” be a happier, more energetic, and involved mom?
Challenge #2: Your Client Lacks Confidence
Do any of these sound familiar?
- “This isn’t going to work.”
- “It’s going to take so long to get into shape, it’s not even worth it.”
- “I can never stick with things like this.”
If so, your client may be lacking confidence. It might be a lack of confidence in:
- Her current abilities
- The efficacy of the program
- Your coaching abilities
… or even her own potential for success.
You might notice your client using a lot of negative self-talk, or she may directly challenge the program or your coaching abilities (e.g., “This program doesn’t include enough cardio, so it’s not going to work.”). In some cases, your client’s “inner voice” might be on an endless loop, repeating all the things that could go wrong.
This one’s a biggie.
Self-doubt and a lack of confidence can prevent the workouts and lifestyle changes from ever happening.
Luckily, you’re in a unique position to help her gain confidence and move toward success.
Start by acknowledging that she’s feeling this way. Try a statement like:
“The concerns you’re feeling are totally normal. I want you to know that you’re far from alone — actually, I think it’s safe to say that in the beginning, we all experience very similar thoughts. I’m here to help, and we’ll see this through together.”
Next, ask her to pinpoint what the voice inside her head is saying. For example, maybe she has the looming feeling that this process is:
- Too big
- Too long
- Too hard
- Too much work
- Too expensive
- Too intangible
… or something else along those lines. Success may simply feel too far away.
Once you figure out exactly what is overwhelming or where the self-doubt is brewing, target those concerns.
Here are three easy coaching strategies you can try:
If she’s concerned about the programming (e.g., she feels the current program lacks cardio, doesn’t have a strict enough diet, or doesn’t have long enough training sessions), it’s a good time to try seeking a compromise. This way, you can give her some of what she wants with some of what she needs. Even a little shift can increase your client’s confidence in her training.
Shrink the Change
If she’s worried the program isn’t going to work or the results are too far away (whether due to her own self-doubt or her doubt in the programming itself), now’s the time to shrink the change. Shift her focus to smaller, more immediate and attainable goals. Baby steps, in other words. Small successes built upon each other are still wins — and they lead to even bigger ones!
Lyndsay Conrad, a 39-year-old personal trainer and GGS-1 grad, says:
“Breaking down goals into bite-sized pieces has made a difference for a lot of clients. Knowing that they don’t have to tackle everything at once gives them the courage and belief that they can make changes, one small step at a time.”
Focus on Building Trust
If you have a solid client-coach relationship, and she’s still expressing feelings of self-doubt (i.e., “I really don’t think I can do this”), then it might be time to have a talk about trust. See if you can shift her focus away from her perceived flaws and toward the possibilities of the programming or toward faith in your advice. For example, ask her to trust the process for four weeks. Then, schedule a time to come back together and re-evaluate so you can adapt as needed.
Here’s how Danielle Repetti Gentner, a 33-year-old personal trainer, strength coach, and GGS-1 grad, builds trust — and shrinks the change — by helping her clients focus on the positive. She says:
“To help clients who feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or otherwise ‘stuck’, I’ve implemented a weekly check-in where clients answer questions that help them refocus on the positives from the week. It helps them think about what went well in training, their nutrition, and their lives.”
Challenge #3: Your Client Feels Like She Doesn’t Belong
While everyone feels like they don’t belong at some point or another, feeling out of place can be a huge roadblock when starting something new. And for many women, the gym can feel intimidating, or even downright unsafe. Depending on her size, weight, ability, age, ethnicity, or experience, she may feel more uneasy than others.
Has she mentioned that she doesn’t feel comfortable going into the weights section of the gym because the men make comments? Or behave in a way that makes her nervous? Or in other words, make her feel like she’s in the wrong place?
Or maybe it translated into something like:
- “They don’t have gender-neutral bathrooms/changing rooms here; I’m nervous.”
- “These people are fancy and rich; I’m not.”
- “No other POC are present; I stand out.”
- “Who can I turn to for help if I feel vulnerable?”
… or another comment of the sort.
Being able to walk into a new place and not have to question whether you fit in is a privilege not afforded to many clients.
In many cases, your client might never voice her anxiety, feelings of exclusion, and concerns about safety.
Feelings like this are pervasive, and they can be really hard to overcome. While you won’t necessarily be able to help her forget these concerns entirely, you can take steps to improve your direct environment. Helping your client feel safer and more comfortable can make a big difference.
If your coaching relationship is new, your client may not tell you about her concerns. Make sure you check in with her to see if there is anything you can do to make her more comfortable.
You could try opening up the conversation with something like:
“Many people naturally have some concerns when they are new to a gym or training program. Is there anything I can do to help you feel more comfortable and welcome? And please tell me if I’m overlooking any important details, I’m eager to make this a smooth and positive experience for you.”
From there, follow through with her requests!
Here are three possible scenarios, and what you can do about each:
Your Client Uses Specific Pronouns
Your client may use pronouns that aren’t necessarily what others would assume — which reinforces the idea that you should not be making assumptions about your client (we’ll delve deeper into this in a bit).
Take the time to introduce your client to staff and inform them what your client’s pronouns are, i.e., she/her, they/them, or whatever your client’s preference is!
Your Client Has an Invisible Disability
Your client could have a hearing impairment (or another disability that may not be visible), and want others to be aware of it because it is something she struggled with at her last gym.
Let the other trainers know that your client has a hearing impairment to avoid confusion or possible misunderstandings.
Your Client Prefers to Work Out When Other Women Are Around
Your client may feel uncomfortable being in a male-dominated environment and prefer working out alongside other women.
Ask the gym manager if there are times of day when more women are working out, and provide your client with information about classes and training groups specifically for women (or if there isn’t an option like this, think about creating one!).
Remember, it’s up to you to support and accommodate all your clients! Making sure they feel safe and welcome can go a long way in helping them stay motivated.
Challenge #4: Your Client Is Struggling With the Judgements and Expectations Placed on Women
Unfortunately, women are getting used to having their bodies judged, criticized, and evaluated by others. The fact that many experience it on a daily basis doesn’t make it normal; it means that women commonly feel unsafe, especially in male-dominated spaces — for good reason.
Four common beliefs that affect women’s body image and may become roadblocks to success include:
Women Must Look a Certain Way to Be “Worthy”
Women must be feminine, but not slutty. Lean, but not too lean. Curvy, but not fat. Basically, women have pretty impossible standards to meet.
Women’s Bodies Are for the Pleasure and Service of Others
Often, women’s self-care is framed as acceptable only because it allows them to then take care of others — instead of taking care of themselves because they’re worthy of care, plainly and simply. (And that’s not even talking about how women are often represented in the media in images that make them appear sexually available in a very subservient way…)
Women’s Bodies Are Up for Scrutiny and Debate
Ever heard comments like, “She’s too skinny” or “She’s too fat to put a photo of herself in a swimsuit online”? Women’s bodies form the basis of far too many (critical, and even cruel) discussions.
Women Don’t Belong or Deserve to “Take Up Too Much Space”
If you’ve ever heard, “Be more ladylike!” or have been run into on a sidewalk when failing to move out of a man’s way, then you know what I mean. Women also are expected to systematically apologize for any inconvenience — no matter the scenario.
For many women, the gym doesn’t feel like a safe space because they are used to being judged and even inappropriately touched. This can lead directly to some of the roadblocks I mentioned earlier, like lack of belonging.
But these concerns also exist outside the gym and affect women’s health and well-being. In some cases, the very language we use to talk about ourselves (“I hate my body / arms / legs / cellulite”) or other women reflects these myths — and it can lead to (or reinforce) feelings of inadequacy or body shame that stop our clients from adopting healthier behaviors. (More on this in a moment.)
Being able to recognize these beliefs, see where they come from, and see how they affect your clients put you in a much better position to coach them successfully.
You have the power to create an environment that is safe and welcoming. And you can help your clients move through these roadblocks.
Your client may know that she’s uncomfortable working out in the gym because she feels like she’s being watched and judged (by men or women). Or she might feel ashamed, uncomfortable, afraid, doubtful, unwanted, too fat, too thin, too sexualized…
However, she might not realize that beliefs like these are what’s standing in her way. And even if she does recognize these feelings and their effect, she may not know where they came from. Maybe she believes these feelings are inevitable (or her fault) because she’s internalized the four myths.
The first thing you can provide for your client is education. If you hear your client making a comment like…
- “How do I get a butt like Kim Kardashian and legs like Carrie Underwood?”
- “I can’t start dating until I lose this weight; no one will want me unless I can get rid of this jiggle.”
- “God, no, I would never wear a swimsuit with this body.”
- “Oh, it’s OK, you can have the bench. I’ll go do something else.”
… then it’s a good time to talk about the four myths and how they might be affecting her body image and training. If she can break free of them, she’ll probably find her training far more enjoyable and fulfilling!
You have the opportunity to help women all around you find a safer, more accepting environment.
Try enforcing these four strategies in your coaching environment:
Implement a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Body Shaming
You can even make a poster that highlights the guidelines for using the space — this means not shaming others, and not shaming themselves either. You could also invite clients to come to talk to you privately if they’re experiencing body image struggles.
Avoid Shame-Based Cues
Don’t use comments like, “Run faster! Don’t you want to get rid of your mummy tummy?” or “Is that really all you’ve got?” Just don’t.
Provide Compliments That Are Not Focused on Your Client’s Body or Appearance
Instead of going for “Wow, you’ve lost so much weight! You look so good!” try something like “I really admire your drive and dedication!”
Don’t base a woman’s worth on her weight, height, hair color, body, or another aspect of her appearance — she is so much more than that.
Refrain From Making Assumptions About Your Client Based on Her Appearance
Don’t assume a client wants to lose weight if she’s starting a training program. By assuming your client’s goal is weight loss, you’ve probably left her feeling scrutinized, judged, unworthy, and less willing to go ahead with your programming, no matter how great it might be.
I also want to share a great example from one of our GGS-1 grads, personal trainer and group fitness instructor Hilary Milsome. Hilary was able to start recognizing how deeply ingrained these myths are, and she began to shift her own behavior — including her language and how she spoke about herself — accordingly. This, in turn, has helped her clients! She says:
“[I realized] how the language I use when speaking about my own body, and women in general, could actually be influencing how others feel about their own bodies… I feel I am much better able to hear what a client is saying without judgment or even comment. In the past, I think I may have tried to say, ‘No you’re not fat!’ or ‘Don’t be silly.’ Now I am much more likely to say, ‘Tell me why you say that?’ I am also much more likely to say of myself, ‘I love how strong my arms are!’ instead of ‘I hate how wobbly my arms are.’ I feel that this positivity rubs off on clients.”
Changing our own language goes hand-in-hand with avoiding body shaming, shame-based cues, and appearance-focused compliments — and it’s amazing what we can do when we begin to recognize detrimental beliefs and shift our behavior accordingly.
Challenge #5: Your Client Is Dealing With Emotional Labor
Emotional labor is the expectation that a person will regulate their emotions, and sometimes others’ as well as their own, to suit particular scenarios. It’s difficult to pinpoint (and define!) because it is so entrenched in our social constructs that we may not realize it’s happening.
While emotional labor is a form of stress, it’s also a huge roadblock, specifically in how it affects women. It’s deeply woven into our social fabric, and it’s often camouflaged as “duty” and “responsibility,” or even as “just what you do.” This makes it very difficult to identify and articulate.
Here are some examples of situations that demand emotional labor of women:
- In the home: Mom is in charge of mediating between arguing children.
- In the workplace: Women are supposed to be assertive, but not too loud or straightforward (or they might be labeled as “bitchy”).
- In social scenarios: Women have their clothing choices picked apart and labeled (e.g., too frumpy, not appropriate for their body type).
- In public spaces: A woman has to be sure not to show a strong reaction to street harassment, like someone catcalling her. If she gives a positive response, then she’s asking for it. If she gives a negative response, then she’s ungrateful and ugly — both of which may put her at risk of physical threat or assault.
All of it gets draining!
Although the phrase “emotional labor” sounds like it is exclusively related to emotions, it can absolutely be physical.
Symptoms of emotional labor can include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Emotional exhaustion
- A diminished sense of personal achievement
You might hear your client saying something like:
- “No matter how hard I try to stay on top of things, I just can’t do it.”
- “I just want to forget about everything.”
Emotional labor is both the exhausting emotion-related work that women do every day and the actual physical tasks they are “responsible” for — which can be draining on a woman’s emotional, mental, and physical capacity. And this can make it near-impossible for her to follow your instructions!
It’s important to consider emotional labor in your coaching because it may be taking away from the energy your client has to train, eat well, recover, or take care of herself.
Understanding her experience and supporting her accordingly is all part of being a person-focused coach. Ask your clients to take stock of what they have going on in their lives:
“It sounds like you’re feeling really overwhelmed by everything, and I think that’s totally normal. You have a lot going on. Tell me more about what feels most overwhelming.”
Here are four more ways that you may be able to help:
Watch Out for Benevolent Sexism
Statements like “Women are just better with emotions!” distill the belief that all women fit into a narrow and limited description. It also leads to emotional labor (assuming that women should and will take on certain added roles and responsibilities without their express consent).
Identify Signs of Burnout
Listen for phrases like “It never ends!” or “I can’t catch up!” Active listening and open-ended questions can go a long way in getting a better picture of your client’s experience. Work together to determine actionable strategies that she can use to lessen the load. For example, are there tasks in her life that she can automate or outsource to make room for what’s most important for her, thereby cutting down on her emotional (and physical) labor load?
Introduce Your Client to the Concept of “Emotional Labor”
You may be surprised how many women will nod in agreement, amazed that a term exists to describe their experience. It’s powerful to put into words something that has been so subjective. This alone can help you be supportive of your client.
Introduce Coping Strategies
Encourage your client to continue training and to celebrate all of her accomplishments. Help her focus on self-care through exercise, nutrition, sleep quality, meditation, and celebrating wins.
We also love this advice that personal trainer, nutrition coach, and GGS-1 grad Jennifer Kleist has for her clients:
“Consistency exists on a continuum. As long as you don’t give up, you haven’t failed.”
This is an excellent way to remind your client that even when everything feels overwhelming, every time she makes a choice to focus on self-care, she’s doing something awesome that should be celebrated. And that will make a difference in the long term.
Your Coaching Opportunity
As you’ve learned, these five roadblocks can form tremendous obstacles for our female clients — even as they are trying to change their behavior. (And indeed, the same obstacles might impede us as we pursue our own goals.)
If your client is struggling to stay consistent, show up for her workouts, or follow your instructions — she might just be dealing with one (or more) of these roadblocks.
And while these topics may be hard to identify and discuss, you can learn how to do so in a way that empowers your clients. Indeed, the coaching solutions you put into action may help break down self-imposed limitations, challenge societal myths, remove negative thought patterns, and improve overall mindset and well-being.
Being able to have open and honest conversations about these personal roadblocks is truly a coaching superpower — and the coaches that put in the deeper work to do it right have a tremendous opportunity to raise the standard of care for women everywhere.
To stand apart in your field and provide your clients with an unmatched experience, you must understand the coaching and psychology elements of successful, rewarding client-coach relationships. Developing these skills takes time and requires practice and ongoing education.
That’s why we created our Girls Gone Strong Level 1 Women’s Coaching Specialist Certification. To teach health and fitness professionals who work with women more than just anatomy, physiology, nutrition, and exercise.
When you commit to your ongoing learning and growth, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who “gets it” — a coach who truly understands how to work with women.
And your clients will thank you.