7 Ways Fitness Professionals Can Help Their Clients Improve Their Body Image

By Jessi Kneeland

Personal trainers and fitness instructors have a lot of influence when it comes to matters relating to body image. As trusted authorities, they are often privy to intimate information about their clients’ bodies and experiences and have the power to lay the groundwork for meaningful conversations about body image.

As a personal trainer, I can’t tell you how many times clients shared deeply personal stories with me about sexual assault, abortion, chemotherapy, or various other important or traumatic experiences that they shared with no one else. These experiences had an impact on their bodies, their health, and their training.

A trusted trainer or coach is often not only the first (or only) person to whom many women open up about their body image issues, they may also be the only person who knows their “whole story.”

This puts fitness pros in a unique position with a lot of power to influence a client’s relationship to their body, whether they realize it or not.

Unfortunately, no training certification available today offers specific information and guidance on how to use that power responsibly. As such, without even realizing it, many trainers and instructors end up accidentally adopting behaviors that are detrimental to their clients’ body image.

Fitness professionals who want to promote body positivity and truly champion their clients’ success can lead the way by recognizing and avoiding these seven common mistakes:

1. Assuming that being “in shape” looks a certain way.

Dramatic before-and-after photos are the bread and butter of many trainers’ websites, social media posts, and business cards. Visible results are often more powerful for attracting prospective clients than testimonials about improved blood work, accounts of better sleep and more energy, or the ability to carry bags of dog food up a flight of stairs without getting winded. But using these before-and-after photos boils fitness down to one single thing: how a person looks. This propagates the myth that fitness only looks a certain way, which is both blatantly untrue and incredibly damaging to a person’s self-esteem and body image.

Try this instead:

Learn about the fat bias in our culture and teach your clients that they can be healthy at any size, and that being in shape actually has little or nothing to do with how their body looks. Help your clients get excited about setting performance-based goals alongside (or instead of) aesthetic goals. Performance-based goals increase self-esteem and body image, and are more likely to produce sustainable results.

2. Assuming someone else’s goal.

Many trainers, coaches and group fitness instructors make the assumption that all women want to focus on an aesthetic goal like losing weight and “toning up.” Making this assumption is not only damaging to a client’s body image, it’s also just plain rude. There are many more empowering reasons for women to train besides than shrinking.

While certainly, a lot of people who seek training or join a gym do have an aesthetic goal in mind, there are people who want to get stronger, who want to feel physically capable, or who want to accomplish something else entirely. It's best to let them communicate their goals than to automatically assume that a client has an aesthetic goal based on what they may currently look like, or who they are. Many people actually have no idea what they want when they start working out, and are just trying to do whatever is “right,” normal, or available as an option. If a fitness authority assumes their goal is to lose weight, tone up, or otherwise “look better,” they will very likely assume that they need to lose weight, tone up, or look better.

Try this instead:

Never, ever assume anything about your client. Also, never assess someone’s body (measurements, weight, body fat) and tell them what you think they need to change, especially avoid doing this as a way to sell them on training. Make it clear to your clients that you are there to help guide them toward whatever they want to accomplish, even if they don’t know what that is yet, and encourage them to focus on how they feel instead of how they look whenever possible.

3. Tolerating, encouraging, or participating in body bashing.

Many look to their trainer or coach for something I call “shame outsourcing.” They criticize themselves and their bodies constantly in front of their trainer. Sometimes this means that they confess their “bad behavior” over the weekend, like having a fast food meal, and expect their trainer to dole out some shaming as punishment. Other times they say mean things about themselves like, “Ugh, my legs are so gross,” or “I suck at squats,” and the trainer will often validate their statement either by silent agreement, or by responding in a way that lends credibility to their shame.

Try this instead:

Refuse to play the role of shamer and refuse to tolerate body bashing. Maintain a zero-tolerance policy against self-criticism in your sessions or classes, and make sure you lead by example with the language you use. Instead of giving your client what they expect when they air their shame to you — a “tsk tsk” or a lecture about trying harder — ask lots of open-ended questions to explore what’s really going on for them, and then just listen.

4. Using shame-based cues.

Many trainers and instructors consider it their job to motivate clients to work harder during their time together, so they spout out lots of “motivational” phrases. Unfortunately, a lot of these phrases subtly (or not-so-subtly) shame their clients, sending the message that they are working out to fix something that’s wrong with them . Cues like, “Keep going! Let’s burn off last night’s calories!” and, “Summer’s almost here! You’re gonna look hot in that bikini!” are the same as saying “you are not good enough as you are right now.”

Try this instead:

Be very aware of the language you use during sessions and classes. A lot of times these cues probably tumble out of your mouth on autopilot, and you picked them up from somewhere a long time ago. Get off autopilot. Slow down and notice the words you choose. Be mindful of what you’re actually saying and be aware of the message it conveys. We often use shame as an easy form of motivation, but there are plenty of more body-positive ways to motivate, like having your client focus on how accomplished she will feel as she rises to a tough challenge today or claims a new PR.

5. Bashing their own body.

Many trainers and instructors hold themselves to a very different physical standard than the average human. They feel that in order to maintain their credibility, they need to showcase a “fitness pro” body all the time, usually meaning super fit, lean, muscular, and perfect. As a result of this pressure, they are especially hard on themselves and more likely to speak negatively about their own bodies in front of their clients and students. When you do this, you are also subtly shaming the people around you. When a super lean, fit woman stands in front of class and says something negative about her body like, “Ugh, I’m so bloated today,” or “I’d better burn off all those tacos from this weekend,” it’s very likely that nearly everyone in the class immediately feels worse about themselves. After all, if the pro’s body isn’t good enough, what does that mean about ours?

Try this instead:

Never talk about your body, or anyone else’s body, in a negative way in front of a student or client. Never. Ever. If this sounds really difficult, I urge you to explore what’s going on for you that drives you to think and speak about yourself this way.

6. Not recognizing “fit privilege.”

Many people who become fitness professionals love fitness, and have either had their life turned around by fitness, or have always been naturally athletic and fit. There is something I refer to as “fit privilege,” in which a fitness pro feels like they’ve cracked the code, and that everyone else just needs to do what they did to get in shape and feel great. Not being aware of your “fit privilege” can lead to ineffective coaching and fosters an atmosphere of shame for the people who you’re trying to help. By telling someone they just need to do what you did, you run the risk of inadvertently invalidating their experience and implying that if they don’t have exactly the same journey you had, they will fail. If (when) your advice doesn’t work perfectly for them, producing your exact results, they may feel like there is something wrong with them or their body.

Try this instead:

Remember that your journey is unique to you, and that each person’s journey is entirely their own and equally valid. Instead of assuming that what has worked for you will work for someone else, commit to learning as much as you can about exercise science and behavior psychology. Acknowledge all the ways a client and her experiences may be different from you and yours, not just physically, but with regard to age, abilities, ethnicity, culture, and even socioeconomic status. Ask lots of open-ended questions and really listen to what’s going on for them: what’s working, what’s not working, and most importantly, why. Also, never downplay the significance of their fear, resistance, or struggle by suggesting that it’s simple and easy, saying, “Just do xyz!” Meet them where they are, listen to them, and make sure they know that their journey is perfectly valid.

7. Presenting themselves as perfect.

This goes along with the pressure to “look the part” as a fitness pro. A lot of trainers and instructors feel the need to present themselves as perfect, flawless models of fitness and healthy living. Sometimes this means they suck in their bellies and only post the “good” shots on Instagram, in which they’re looking super fit. Other times it means they lie about their habits, proclaiming that they never skip a workout, never eat junk food, never drink a little too much, and never struggle with motivation.

While it’s understandable to want to maintain credibility by upholding the status quo for fitness pros and be seen as a role model, this habit damages everyone, clients and fitness professional peers alike.

Try this instead:

Be transparent. Be open about your struggles, what you give up in order to meet certain goals, and the fact that you’re not perfect either. If you eat a burger and drink a couple of beers, say so. If you tend to avoid burgers and beer because doing so helps you maintain visible abs and that is your priority at the moment, say so. If you get bloated sometimes, acknowledge it. Don’t hide it. Let people see your human truth so that they don’t compare themselves to a fantasy.

Above all, the most important thing you can do as a fitness pro is recognize that it’s your responsibility to do your own work on yourself. If you struggle with your own body image or confidence, or feel a need to prove your worth, it will be that much more difficult for you to support your clients in their journey. Do the work to challenge cultural programming for yourself, hone your own mindset, and work to let go of your ego. Then just be your authentic self, create a space where your clients feel seen and listened to, and be a supportive and compassionate witness as they blossom and transform.

(For more information like this about how to better understand, connect with, and serve your clients, join our private Coaching and Training Women Facebook group today!)

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About the author:  Jessi Kneeland

Jessi is a coach, teacher, speaker, and writer dedicated to helping women break free from body image issues, to live their biggest, most authentic, and most empowered lives. You can learn more about her philosophy on her website jessikneeland.com, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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