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Why Personal Trainers Who Want To Motivate Clients Should Stop Talking To Them


Here we explore evidence from a study that suggests personal trainers who remain silent or speak little when their clients are exercising are more likely to get the best out of their trainees than PTs who continuously yell words and phrases of encouragement...

Motivation is a much considered topic in the world today. The motivation someone feels to do something be high one day and then wax and wane for any number of reasons. People in positions of influence are constantly looking for the best ways to motivate others to do what they want in every field from business and the armed forces to the personal training industry.

Part of a personal trainer’s job is to keep a client feeling positive about the work being done and motivated to keep going. Words of encouragement are obviously an important tool for accomplishing this, but do this too much and it could start to have the opposite effect to what you intend.

“You can do it!”

“Just one more!”

“Come on, come on!”

“You’ve got this.”

“Never back down!”

The above one-liners are examples of the kind of stuff trainers will often say to their clients during exercise sessions. But a recent article in the Harvard Business Review entitled If You Want to Motivate Someone, Shut Up Already suggests that this kind of motivational tactic might be counterproductive.

In the article, head researcher Brandon Irwin, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Kansas State University, presented his findings from a study that analysed the effect words of encouragement can have on peoples’ performance while exercising. The study determined that such words do not inspire people to perform better during a workout.

“We didn’t expect this, but it’s a really clear result. Constant encouragement did not have the intended effect of inspiring [exercise participants] to improve,” reported Irwin.

The study

The study was carried out like this: Irwin asked volunteer exercise participants to perform two sets of plank and hold it for as long as they could. The volunteers were divided into two groups. The first group performed both sets of plank entirely alone, but the second group only performed the first set alone; for the second set they were paired with a virtual instructor who was experienced in the plank exercise. Of the group two participants, some were paired with silent instructors for the second set, and the rest were paired with instructors that used similar phrases of encouragement to those listed previously in this article.

The results

The group two participants with virtual instructors held the plank position longer than the group one participants who performed the two sets alone. But the group two participants with silent instructors held the plank 33% longer than the group one members, while the group two members with vocal partners only held the plank 22% longer than the group one members.

The conclusion

It seems that the skilled but silent instructors were able to get better results from their participants than the skilled but loud ones.

The first question that would come to most people’s minds when reading these results is why the group two participants with instructors, silent or vocal, performed better than the group one participants who had no instructors.

According to professor Irwin, the reason why partnering the subjects with people they perceived to be better at plank than them was such a decisive motivating factor in the study is because human beings naturally want to compare favorably with others around them, so are more likely to push themselves harder and do more if their instructor/partner is performing at a greater level.

The second question that arises from those results is why did the silent instructors get better results from their subjects than the vocal ones?

“Our theory is that these subjects didn’t register that the encouraging words were directed at them; they thought the partners were encouraging themselves. This made [the subjects] think the partners were less capable,” Irwin explains.

Clearly the reasons for the improved results of the silent instructors are less certain and additional studies are required. But the findings of this study do certainly suggest that personal trainers who are not as prolific with their verbal encouragement will get better results from their clients than those who constantly try to motivate with the tongue.

We recommend that as a PT, you limit how often you speak to clients during exercise sessions, and in addition, always refer to them by name when you tell them to do something, as opposed to parroting cliche motivational phrases that could be used on any client.


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