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Building Rapport With Personal Training Clients

Building Rapport With Personal Training Clients

by Heather Doane


  • Building rapport is almost synonymous with building business. The importance of building rapport should be reinforced continually.
  • Research suggests that 65 percent of meaning in any message is conveyed non-verbally; therefore, before a word is even spoken, impressions are being made. Be sure your body language is conveying the right message.

Developing a deep level of rapport is critical in creating lasting and successful relationships with personal training clients. Rapport is one of the most important features or characteristics of interaction.  It is a commonality of perspective, being in “sync” and being on the same wavelength as the person to whom you are talking.(1) The process of building rapport is ongoing and encompasses many aspects of communication, personal development, respect for client goals, and setting boundaries.


Research suggests that 65 percent of meaning in any message is conveyed non-verbally; therefore, before a word is even spoken, impressions are being made. Non-verbal communication, referred to as kinesics, is defined as facial expressions and body movements, posture, gestures, and touch. Although expressions vary among different cultures, commonly anger is expressed in the eyebrows and lower face, and the mouth and jaw display surprise, happiness, and disgust.(2) Awareness of facial expressions will ensure that messages are being sent and received accurately.

Personal Standards

To create lasting, meaningful partnerships with clients it is imperative to take time to understand your motivation and aspirations as a trainer. Asking questions leading to your true beliefs will help refine your personal standards. For example, think of the people you admire and why you admire them. Consider what personal standards those individuals hold themselves to, then, write down what you expect of yourself.

Considering the following in relation to your role as a fitness professional:

1) What are my personal and professional aspirations?
2) What is the essential to my success?
3) What are some realistic expectations that will lead to actions and results?
4) What different roles do I play, and how to interpret these roles?

A key ingredient in the world of non-verbal communication is the almighty,  unwavering smile.  Author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, suggests a simple way to make a good first impression and get people to like you is to just smile.  A smile says “I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.”(3) Who wouldn’t respond well to that?  Smiling is a simple yet effective way to build  rapport with clients.

Awareness of body positioning can help trainers determine what a client is experiencing in that moment. For example, Gavin suggests, shoulders that are  turned inward toward the chest can be an expression of non-receptivity. Shoulders that are sloped downward may express a state of depression, and elevated shoulders tend to express anxiety or fear.(2) Ease any apprehension and provide reassurance by asking clients how they feel about specific exercises and the training session in general.

Most of us know what distance from another person we feel most comfortable. Proxemics, which refers to the consideration of physical space and the arrangement of environmental space, is important when working toward building rapport.  Be sensitive to the distance you are sitting or standing to your client in order to respect personal space. If someone moves too close or too far we may  experience anxiety, fear, or it may seem like a suggestion to become more intimate.(2) Awareness of non-verbal communication helps determine the client’s level of comfort. If a client feels secure while training with you, the relationship is likely to progress and establishing rapport will come naturally.

Listening skills and Client Goals

Before designing a program, strive to understand the client’s individual needs,    goals, and aspirations beyond just hearing them. People have many goals ranging from appearance and functional needs, to more energy, or sport specific. All of these goals are important.  Listen carefully to individual desires and then determine the client’s level of readiness to progress.(5) Fred Hoffman, international fitness consultant, suggests that the first meeting should be used to discuss long-term goals and how they will be achieved.  Following this meeting, put together short and long term plans of action that fit the client’s lifestyle. After reviewing the plan together, determine what is realistic, and then develop a mutual agreement.(6) 

Making eye contact, listening and encouraging clients to talk about themselves is a great way to become a good communicator. Most people like to talk about themselves, so ask questions your clients will enjoy answering and encourage them to talk about their accomplishments and aspirations.(3) Effective listening and questioning skills will show clients that you are genuinely interested and care about their individuals needs.

While each trainer has their own unique style, discussing goals and setting realistic expectations from the start will allow open communication throughout the relationship. When selected to help an individual with their fitness goals, we are given an exciting opportunity to assist in their personal growth. Being effective in this is essential to building rapport and creating lasting partnerships, and ultimately improving a client’s quality of life.


“Boundaries are rules you establish for yourself, and by which you teach others to abide.”(7) When setting your boundaries, become clear on three things: your role, your resources, and the situation dynamics.

Your role as a trainer includes the way you train, the philosophies and values that you hold in relation to your training, the contracts and policies you use to operate your business, your limitations, and the law. Your resources include your capabilities, the equipment and access to resources that you have, and time. Situation dynamics are less clearly defined, but refer to what may occur that is unanticipated or out of normal circumstances. For example, a client begins to cry uncontrollably mid-session and informs you of a shocking incident about her dysfunctional marriage. Expressing empathy is appropriate; however, if this situation becomes a regular occurrence, it may be necessary to re-examine your boundaries.(2)

Trainers who develop the ability to truly connect with their clients will create satisfying, lasting, and rewarding partnerships.

Setting boundaries will be unique to your situation and the population you train. Develop boundaries by contemplating the following:

  • Who do you train, work with, or collaborate with? 
  • What is your goal for the partnership?
  • What services do you provide?
  • How long, what time limitations are there, and where does the training occur?
  • How do your methods of training work for clients?
  • Why is this person’s goal so important that they are willing to devote money, time, and effort to work towards accomplishment?

Asking who, what, why, when, where, and how type questions allows for consideration of many different situations and is a great way to begin drafting you personal boundaries.(2) Implementing boundaries in the beginning of the relationship sets a precedent and creates an established partnership based on a common understanding of the goal.  Go beyond a verbal agreement and put it in writing. 

The ability to establish rapport will ultimately determine your success as a personal trainer. Through effective communication, creating personal standards, understanding client goals and setting boundaries you will create an environment in which clients will be successful and continue to train with you. Let’s face it, most trainers know how to help people exercise and progress them toward their goal. However, is this what really keeps them coming back for more sessions? Trainers who develop the ability to truly connect with their clients will create satisfying, lasting, and rewarding partnerships.

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