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a post by

Kara Glasco, MS, RCEP, HFS
Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist

Afraid to work hard

In this article I highlight my last type of difficult client, those that are afraid to work hard. These clients can tend to be the most aggravating type of client especially when you can see the hidden potential. Clients that are afraid to work hard come in all shapes, sizes, genders, ages, and fitness levels. I have trained some of the whiniest athletes and male clients that were the biggest babies! The trick to dealing with this type of clients is to set boundaries. Determine what you are willing to tolerate and what behaviors are inexcusable. Like most trainers and coaches, I do not allow the words “I can’t.” If you hear “I can’t” more often than you’d like, evaluate your training plan. If your client feels they can’t do something then there may be a workout progression problem. Clients that are afraid to work hard need a slower progression to build confidence and reduce exercise fears.

I will also highlight the importance of developing a training lingo with your clients. This may sound foreign, but when dealing with difficult clients, most trainers will try just about anything! I’ve done my fair share of sneaky training tactics but all for the overall good of my clients. Follow my tips below for training for clients that are afraid of working hard in the gym.


Hypochondriacs obsesses about every little ache and pain often questioning if they have a much more serious health issue. I experience more elderly hypochondriacs, but that doesn’t always hold true. Most hypochondriacs take pride in telling you about every malady. They also like to refer their current health conditions back to when they played sports. I can see it now, you are rolling your eyes, and I’m right there with you. We’ve all had that client that can’t do JACK because they played football 30 years ago. Former colligate and professional athletes, I am leaving you out of this category.

I would bet money that most of their aches and pains are due to a sedentary lifestyle versus decades old sports injuries. It can be almost impossible to train this type of client. Your training sessions feel like a game of battleship or dodge the injury. Every basic exercise seems to flare-up or hurt a different body part. This is where the lingo component of your training comes in. I find that hypochondriacs often classify pain and strain as the same thing. I tend to describe pain as a sharp and stabbing type of pain. A strain generally feels like tightness, tiredness, or stiffness. If the client feels muscular strain then you are doing your job right. If they have a stabbing pain especially in a joint then immediately stop and re-evaluate. Pain is NEVER ok, and clients should not be coached to push through it. Try a different but comparable exercise to determine other range of motion limits and physical inabilities. If you are unable to train them pain-free, refer your client to a certified specialist to diagnose underlying musculoskeletal issues.

Whiners and Complainers

I would warrant that at least half of your training clients are whiners and Debbie downers. Most want to see immediate results but are unwilling or afraid to put in the real sweat equity required. The first thing I do is assess why the client is “out of shape.” Are they unmotivated? Are they unaware of what a REAL workout is? Do they want to be comfortable not challenged? See if this example sounds familiar.
Your client can do 10 pound kettlebell swings for hours, but if you give them a 20 pound kettlebell “IT’S TOO HEAVY!” This is where the master negotiator and sneaky trainer come into play. A lot of trainers may argue that you should never negotiate exercises with a client. When you are desperate to get your client to do something, ANYTHING, go ahead and negotiate. Some trainers may just drop a whiney client, but I tend to find the glimmer of hope in every person. So here’s what I would do, give your client two options, Option 1: 10 pound KB swings for 30 seconds repeating 10 times. Or, Option 2: 20 pound KB swings for 30 seconds repeating 5 times. Most often they will pick the short and perceived easier option.

Another example, let’s say your client doesn’t like walking lunges. I will negotiate walking lunges for leg press singles, single leg dead lifts, standing split squats, or Bulgarian split squats. You are getting a single leg hip-dominant exercise out of them without them actually doing lunges. If they still whine and complain then enact my favorite policy of all, the push-up policy. Every whining outburst incurs a 10 push-up penalty and no girlie pushups either! I will not continue the training session until the penalty is paid. Whine and you get more work.

Debbie Downers

The next type of difficult client is the Debbie downer, or the “I’ll never be able to do that” client. We never intend to set our clients up for failure, but we’ve all overestimated our client’s capabilities at least once or twice. I’d rather have you and your client be pleasantly surprised by their achievements than depressed about their failures. Be wary of ego because most men overestimate and most women underestimate. Debbie downers also tend to talk negatively about themselves and have low self-esteem. One of the most important aspects of our job as trainers is to not only motivate but to empower. I never allow my clients to talk about themselves negatively, and I try to encourage an atmosphere of fun and positivity. Redirect your client’s negative thoughts and highlight all their achievements and accomplishments. If your client is feeling negative about their workout, find things that they are positive about. A little negotiation never hurts here either.

For example, if your client feels like they are a terrible runner, then select an elliptical and crank the resistance up. You will get more out of your client, less whining, and they will feel confident too. This brings me to another sneaky trainer point. I can’t count; I never have, and probably never will. This can be either an asset or a hindrance when it comes to personal training. I tend to get caught up in watching form and technique and then forget what number I’m on. I’d rather my client do it RIGHT then do it the right amount of times. So when it comes to that client that “can’t do that many” or “go that long” I forget to count on purpose or distract them from the numerical value. You’d be surprised how well this works! It always makes me laugh when they get caught up in conversation and end up doing 20 extra minutes or an extra mile.

Every trainer will experience difficult clients that challenge their training style. It can be frustrating when clients are hypochondriacs, excessive whiners, or have no self-confidence. Remember it is your job to push them to new levels and instill exercise confidence. Health and wellness has its physical component but it also has a major mental component. Some trainers may not agree, but don’t be cautious about negotiating with difficult clients. When motivating difficult clients, don’t be afraid to play brain games and employ sneaky tactics to get the most out of them. I’d rather my clients enjoy their training, work harder than they thought possible and see amazing success in the gym.

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