Stuart Aitken

I’m going to start this blog post with a story, as that’s how we learn and remember information. and I believe this information to be essential learning for any Personal Trainer.

I’d been training a male client for just under 1 year.

Our most recent training block had been about getting him into photo-shoot condition, as that’s exactly what we were doing – a professional photo-shoot to show exactly how far he had come.

The story doesn’t really take any relevance until after the shoot, where the client and I were discussing moving him forwards.

For most people, post photo-shoot means a phase of increasing muscle mass, and this is exactly where I started moving his diet and programming towards.

More calories, more volume and something I told him was completely normal and necessary; the loss of abs and the increase of body-fat.

There was one fundamental problem with this approach however; this client didn’t want to lose his abs…

Now I was lucky here as I managed to spot the fact he wasn’t happy with where we were going, despite him not telling me this.

This wasn’t his fault however; I had been trying to push my approach on him without taking into account what he actually wanted, and what his “why” for wanting personal training was.

I was being “philosophy-centred” instead of “client-centred”.

At the weekend just gone past myself, some of the other SBS coaches and a lot of SBS Academy students were lucky enough to spend a day with Nick Tumminello, of Performance U. Nick’s known as the trainer of trainers, and for good reason; his seminar was fantastic – check out Luke’s vLog of the day below!

The reason I’m mentioning Nick is because this is where I’ve stolen the philosophy- vs. client-centred approach from, and he provided me with a large amount of inspiration for writing this blog post.

See, its always been known that keeping a client is hell of a lot easier than getting a new one, and this is why I think the topic of retaining clients needs to spoken about much more loudly.

I think this client-centred approach that Nick brought up at the weekend is something a lot of PT’s need to read about as it really is the key to keeping your clients long-term, and actually managing to stick around longer than most do.

Why is Retention so Important?

This is an interesting question, as retention isn’t something I hear being discussed as often as it should be.

Firstly, the life span of a PT is typically 1-2 years, which is not much of a “career” is it? Why so short?

Thinking about this lifespan logically, one of the main reasons people don’t stick a job out is because they aren’t making the money they need to live the life they want.

If we keep every single client we ever work with (hypothetical situation, as this just doesn’t happen in real life) is money ever likely to be an issue?

The answer to that question is obviously no, as you’d be making a good living with 25-30+ PT sessions per week.

Although keeping every client we ever work isn’t likely, can we increase the chance of keeping as many as possible and make the element of job security a lot less likely to be an issue through using some relatively simple retention techniques?

Secondly – as I said above, it’s a lot easier to keep a client than it is to get a new one, so why would you not want to retain the people you currently work with?

Thirdly, I’ve done the whole marketing thing.

I’ve used Facebook ads.

I’ve written for a butcher for 6 months.

I’ve experimented with LeadPages and WordPress websites.

I’ve spent copious amount of money on business cards, flyers and a nice logo, and here’s what I’ve worked out from doing all of those things –

Yes doing all of the above WILL get you clients if you do it properly, but it takes a LOT of hard work, time and mental energy.

I do see what I’ve mentioned above as being necessary to start getting clients.

Getting started in the personal training industry involves lots of work that you’ll be unlikely to get paid for, and a lot of that work that will probably end without you gaining any business from it, which brings me to my main point from this section –

Keeping the clients you do get is more important than getting new ones.

Most personal trainers are far too focused on gaining new clients, and not on placing enough importance and time into the ones they’ve currently got.

Retaining clients will pay off in terms of getting MORE business, as keeping those clients means you’re doing something right. This leads to more referrals (generally involving the sort of people who are like the ones that are staying with you… think about that for a second), and it gives you more scope to start creating a community.

Where Are We Currently Going Wrong?

We Don’t Care Enough

As I’ve stated above, we are far too focused on the latest marketing strategy that promises a 6-figure salary and a four-hour workweek – naming no names, of course.

We’ve got to start focusing on the people who are paying our bills, turning up for our sessions and valuing the service we provide.

We don’t care about those clients enough, and showing them we care and believe in them is where those prouder than proud, goose-bump like moments happen in Personal Training.

You know – the kind of moments you get into this profession for.

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We Are Trying To Master The Wrong Things

As fantastic as it is that we as trainers can now learn things about posture, pain, rehab, plyometrics and agility, we seem to have forgotten the reason most clients come to see us, and what we are actually qualified to do.

We aren’t Physiotherapists.

We aren’t Strength and Conditioning coaches.

We aren’t mind-set specialists.

We are Personal Trainers who will be usually working with clients who simply want to feel and look a bit better than they currently do.

There’s no need for us to be “fixing” our clients back problems, that’s the type of thing physiotherapists have studied years to be qualified to help with.

And there’s no need for us to prescribing incredibly detailed and periodized training programmes, that’s what strength coaches working with athletes are for.

I am not saying there’s anything wrong with having some basic knowledge about pain mechanisms, mobility drills and things like linear and non-linear periodization (and they can be incredibly useful things to know) but this isn’t what most of your clients are going to come to you for.

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Your Clients Aren’t You

You might love bodybuilding, powerlifting, weight lifting, CrossFit, yoga, gymnastics, kettlebells, or whatever – but that does not mean that your client wants or needs to be doing that.

Remember the reason they came to see you, and what their “why” was.

Do they want to be lifting really heavy every session to get a double bodyweight deadlift?

Or do drop-sets for every muscle group?

Or do AMRAP deadlifts?

Or accomplish a handstand?

Or do they just want to lose some weight, feel a bit better naked and lower their risk of age-related disease?

Remember that your clients are not you and that training them exactly the way you train yourself is not the best way to approach retaining them, unless of course that’s how they love training.

Should you learn a bit about all of these training methodologies?

Yes, absolutely – but don’t try to fit square pegs in round holes and force everyone to fit into that type of training.

The client ultimately rules the type of training you do and this quote from Nick Tumminello sums up where your thought process should be headed when designing a training plan:

“Give clients what they need, to achieve what they want”

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What Strategies Can We Use To Help Retain Clients?

With all that initial information regarding retention out of the way, we can actually start getting into the stuff you can really start to apply with your clients.

The strategies I’m going to write about are ones that I’ve used myself and learnt from other trainers, as there really are very few ‘new’ ideas out there (be sceptical is someone says there is!). This means that some of this may not be applicable to either the type of people you work with, or the type of person you are.

Take what’s applicable and useful to you, and discard the rest.

Learn How To Communicate

If you read that and thought “I can talk and listen, what more do I need to know about communication?” – you’re right, as being in this industry means you’ll probably not be too bad at communicating with people as it is; but this doesn’t mean you can’t improve.

The subject of communication was one I’d never really explored until I met Cathy MacDonald of The Art of Communication.

I’ve always known I was quite a good listener, but I had no idea how much of an impact improving my understanding of people would have on my retention, and client results.

Communication skills are just as important to a personal trainer as understanding how to create a calorie deficit, or being able to adjust an exercise depending on the proficiency level of the client.

A bold statement, I know – but I’m standing by it.

With the ability to communicate with people in a more efficient manner you develop better relationships with them.

You create more trust in the process you are putting forward to the client.

You can create empathy with the client.

All of those are crucial in the quest for client retention.

Autonomy, Competence and Belonging

I’ve written about autonomy in a lot of detail before (here), and one of my other colleagues at SBS has written about self determination theory as a whole (here), but for the articles sake here’s a quick summary of what they are.

Autonomy – This essentially means choice. Having a choice helps you feel like it’s you who is making the decisions that are important in your journey, and not someone else. It’s important as its one of the things that keeps us motivated. Without motivation we will not get very far.

Competence – This is a feeling of getting better at something a person values – the opposite of competence would be feeling stupid. This is important as it helps us focus in on the positive things that happen to us in the form of process based goals.

Belonging – This is doing something that brings you closer to others who share similar values, and the opposite would be a feeling of loneliness. A feeling of belonging is essential as it means clients can feel part of something bigger than just themselves, and when things go wrong they have other people in a similar situation to turn to.

This Isn’t Their Career So Don’t Make It One.

As great as it’d be if every client were 100% focused on exercising 5 times per week and on never making bad decisions with their food, this just isn’t the case.

A large amount of the clients us PT’s will work with are here to get fitter and to feel that bit better when they take their clothes off.

They’ll still want to drink alcohol at the weekend.

They’ll still want to eat out when friends and family offer them, and be able to have dessert if they feel like it.

And they’ll not want to place exercise top of their weekly priorities, which means they will miss the occasional session.

Understand that this is absolutely fine, and a large part of your job will come from giving them a session that leaves them feeling that bit happier.

Don’t judge someone because they don’t prepare all their meals and get up at 5am to get in a workout, it’s just that they have different priorities (like children and a job).

Your job is to help the client with whatever goal they have and if this is just to improve fitness and maintain their current shape, that’s what you should be working towards.

Customer Service, Yo’

Do you know your clients birthdays or have them noted down somewhere?

Do you what their spouse’s name is?

Do you know what they enjoy doing when they have time off?

Have you ever sent them a handwritten thank you card?

If you answered no to all of those questions, don’t worry about it as I’m not about to tell you it’s necessary to know all of those things about someone – but does knowing this kind of information set you apart from the rest?

The last thing you want as a trainer is to walk into a session and the client to tell you it was their birthday yesterday.

You don’t need to give presents, or send cards, but sending a text to say happy birthday goes along way to showing how much you care about them.

They Have Paid For This Session

When the clients come in for their personal training session, that whole time period they are there is their hour.

Make sure the time they spend with you is one of the times during their week when they feel most valued.

Your focus should be on them when they are exercising and on talking/ listening to them when they are resting.

Everyone will have heard of the PT who sits on his phone during sessions.




I’m not bothered if the industry is filled with such bad trainers that simply being ‘average’ is acceptable, because it’s not.

You are in the customer service industry and part of that service should be on making them feel like they really are the only person in the gym at that time.

Build a Community

This is something a lot of trainers completely miss the mark on.

You’ve got all those clients, but you never introduce them to each other?

Clients want that feeling of belonging (self determination theory mentioned above!) and of being part of something bigger than just their goal – community can give them this.

Have meet-ups at places like bowling, coffee shops, Spartan/ Tough Mudder races, hill walks and open gym sessions.

SBS Coach Evan Chaffey presenting on programming for hypertrophy at our most recent get-together for clients, Shreducation readers and SBS Academy students.
SBS Coach Evan Chaffey presenting on programming for hypertrophy at our most recent get-together for clients, Shreducation readers and SBS Academy students.

Use a Facebook group and post in it regularly to encourage engagement and to help to build a safe place for your clients to ask questions and share their journey.

If you want more information on this kind of thing, check out a company called Habitry and their e-book called “We Make Communities”.

Wrapping Up

When I initially thought of the idea for writing this blog post I hadn’t quite foreseen how much information I’d want to fit into it. Even if you’ve read most of this and taken away very little, I guarantee there is at least one tip you can use from this post that will help with retaining your clients, even if its just positive reinforcement on the things you are doing correct. This topic is one that’s very close to my heart because I know it’s one of the strong points of my business, and because it’s essentially the key to sustainability in the personal training industry.

Although the title I’ve chosen could be slightly misleading, as you’ll never have a client “for life”, the premise of keeping a client for a long period of time stands true and hopefully this blog post has given you some ideas about how you can make this possible.