The 3 Fitness Personality Types: Identification, Communication and Practical Tips for Personality-specific Personal Training

This following article of mine was edited by Lindsay Vastola for future publication in Personal Fitness Professional magazine.

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It is often said that we should give our clients “a combination of what they want and what they need.” Instead, I prefer to say training is about giving our clients “what they need to achieve what they want.” Clients need a fitness professional to communicate and provide a training approach that is in-line with what they want. An effective way to achieve this is by identifying, understanding, and training according to a client’s individual fitness personality type.

In the paper, The General Causality Orientations Scale: Self-Determination in Personality in Journal of Research in Personality (1), Deci and Ryan describe three personality types:

  1. Autonomy-oriented
  2. Control-oriented
  3. Impersonal-oriented

The strength of these personality orientations can vary in different life contexts; Rose, Markland & Parfitt (2,3) developed the Exercise Causality Orientations Scale (ECOS), that provides a series of multiple-choice questions to assess the strength of an individual’s causality orientations in the exercise domain. (4) Since these three personality types have different modes of function in terms of human motivation and behavior, it’s crucial for fitness professionals to know how to identify each personality type, understand their current and prospective clients’ personal values and goals, and then tailor their communication and training strategy accordingly. This is because, as will be illustrated here, an approach that may excite and interest the autonomy-oriented person, would likely set-up the control-oriented person for failure, and make the impersonal-oriented person want to run in other direction.

This article highlights the key identifying characteristics of the three fitness personality types and includes some general, practical recommendations for training and communicating with each.

The three fitness personality types: identification, communication and practical training tips

Autonomy-oriented fitness personality type

Autonomy-oriented individuals are those who tend to select jobs that allow greater initiative, tend to interpret their existing situations as informational, and therefore, are more autonomy-promoting. Because they’re more intrinsically motivated rather than motivated by extrinsic rewards, they organize and regulate their actions on the basis of personal goals and interests rather than controls and constraints. They look at everything as a lesson or personal challenge that makes them smarter, stronger or more competent.

In a study of cardiac-surgery patients, those who were high on the autonomy-orientation scale were found to view their surgery more as a challenge and were likelier to have more positive post-operative attitudes; whereas those low on the autonomy orientation scale viewed their surgery as a threat and had more negative post-operative attitudes. (5)

In the context of exercise and nutrition, autonomy-oriented individuals do things because they want to, and further, like to decide what they do. They don’t like anything rigid that takes away from their ability to be self-determining. They much prefer having opportunities to make decisions on what they do in training and lifestyle and adjust accordingly to their daily situation and schedule.

Many fitness professionals are autonomy-oriented when it comes to their own training and nutrition; likely a reason why they became fitness professionals. Some of our clients share these same personality traits in this regard but don’t have the same knowledge and experience. This is why autonomy-oriented clients are often the ones who enjoy reading training books and learning about the thought process behind their trainer’s exercise prescription and programming approach.

Autonomy-oriented personality types dislike a repetitive and rigid workout structure because they’re more motivated when they’re able to make (at least some) decisions on things like exercise order, exercises they prefer to perform or omit, or changing the style of the workout depending on how they feel. In other words, they prefer to be given options and to have a fluid and adaptive process.

The same goes with their nutrition. These individuals don’t want to be put on a specific diet plan but prefer to be given guidelines for them to utilize in the best way they determine. These are the individuals who don’t respond well to being told that they need to get rid of all their favorite junk food. Instead, they’d rather have it in order to demonstrate their own self-control.

Control-oriented fitness personality type

Control-oriented individuals are motivated by extrinsic rewards; factors such as pay and status are important in determining which jobs they take. Their behavior is organized with respect to controls in their environment rather than by their own choices. They tend to rely on external controlling events such as deadlines or surveillance to motivate themselves.

From a practical nutrition and training standpoint, control-oriented individuals have difficulty staying on track unless they are training for a specific event or test. So, clients of this personality type do best with very structured programs and diets with clearly defined metrics and markers to regularly work toward. Since their behavior is initiated and regulated by extrinsic rewards, if they’re not training for a specific event, they need a clear training objective such as a transformation challenge or an approach that offers incentives (e.g., a trophy, special t-shirt, gift card, etc.) to help keep them interested and motivated.

Impersonal-oriented fitness personality type

Impersonal-oriented individuals feel that they are unable to regulate their behavior to achieve desired outcomes, have feelings of incompetence and often see themselves as unable to master situations. They tend to have strong anxiety about entering new situations. They follow precedents not because they’re controlled by them, but because they lack the intentionality to do differently.

From a training and diet perspective, impersonal-oriented individuals are often the clients who say they’ve “tried everything but nothing works;” or every time they get going in the right direction, they have a set-back like an injury or major life crisis. As a result, they’re often hesitant to get started at a new facility or start a new program because they feel like no one understands them. It’s for this reason they’ll respond best when the fitness professional takes time to listen, asks questions to learn more about their past experiences and shows that they empathize with how difficult engaging in such an endeavor is for them.

These individuals tend to do best by taking a training and nutrition approach that starts off slowly and builds comfort in a supportive environment with constant communication and social support.

First (session) impressions are everything!

There are two important reasons why knowing how to identify different fitness personality types is especially crucial during your initial meeting with a prospective client.

First, you’ll know how to interact with them in a way that resonates, which will make them more likely to sign-up for your services. For example, the control-oriented person needs deadlines, whereas the autonomy-oriented person doesn’t like deadlines. In your first meeting with a control-oriented person, they would be excited to hear you talk about your expectations, deadlines, and any incentives for meeting or exceeding them. On the other hand, the autonomy-oriented person would prefer less talk and more action on the gym floor during their first meeting where you show them how they can become smarter and more competent with exercise and nutrition. As for a first meeting with an impersonal-oriented person, they’d be more inclined to want to work with you if you take more time to talk with them in a private office to listen to them so they feel understood and begin to build a level of comfort with you and your environment.

The second reason being able to identify the fitness personality type of a prospective client is important is because it will help you determine whether that person is likely to be successful given your training style and environment. This is especially important if you focus on semi-private training or group training that doesn’t allow you to be as accommodating to individual personality types as you can be with one-on-one training.

When you understand these three fitness personality types, you are better able to determine how to effectively communicate and train each client or whether to recommend a different training environment that may be a better fit. As a result, you’ve put yourself in an ideal position to give them what they need in order to help them achieve what they want.

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  1. Deci, Edward & Ryan, Richard. (1985). The General Causality Orientations Scale: Self-Determination in Personality. Journal of Research in Personality. 19. 109-134.
  2. Rose, E.A., Markland, D., & Parfitt, G. (2001). The development and initial validation of the Exercise Causality Orientations Scale. Journal of Sports Sciences, 19, 445-462. 
  3. Rose, E.A., Parfitt, G. & Williams, S. (2005). Exercise causality orientations, behavioural regulation for exercise and stage of change for exercise: exploring their relationships. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 6, 399-414.
  5. King, K. B. (1984). Coping with cardiac surgery. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, New York.

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