Why Personal Trainers Should Give Clients Choices in Their Workouts

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The following is a guest article by Israel Halperin.

As a personal, do you let your clients make choices concerning the training sessions?  Based on the available research to date, the answer is that you should.

By providing your clients with choices you will likely enhance their motor learning (i.e., learn new techniques), their performance (i.e., how well they perform the exercises), along with their motivation and adherence.  Pretty much everything we as trainers care about. 

Let’s unpack this a little:

A growing body of evidence is clearly showing that allowing people to act autonomously, which in practical terms means making choices, leads to better outcomes (1,2,3). What choices are we talking about? Here is a short list of choices that were studied:

  • The exercise selection.
  • The order or exercises.
  • The number of repetitions to be completed.
  • Supposedly irrelevant choices such as the color of the mats (we will get back to that one later).

Put simply, research demonstrated that those who received the opportunity to choose improved to a greater extent compared to those than those who did not.

Now, you may be wondering: Improved in what? Well, most research comes from the motor learning domain, so the studied outcomes mostly revolved around learning new tasks. These include tasks that require balance (standing still on a force plate), accuracy (golf putting and basketball throws) and movement form (dancing and trampoline sequences).

People also enjoy self-selecting the intensity of their training sessions. Compared to imposed walking or running speeds, people prefer to choose when to speed up and when to slow down, even when the two conditions are matched for average speed and covered distance.

More recently, this area of research has been examined through a sport science perspective (1). In a study (4) that I published with colleagues in 2017, we found that competitive combat athletes punched with greater forces and velocities when allowed to choose the order of the to-be-delivered single punches. One of the subjects was a kickboxing world champion. This work has been replicated with other force production tasks, running economy, and jumping performance. 

What’s happening here? Why do people do better when they have to ability to choose?

Briefly, acting autonomously is considered a fundamental psychological (5) need and even a biological necessity (6). Indeed, research shows that animals also prefer to choose (7). Acting autonomously is also related to activation of brain regions associated with dopamine release, a neurotransmitter known to influence learning, mood and motivational levels. 

While the research on this topic is coming out at a fast pace, some questions still remain unanswered concerning the practical application of this coaching strategy. For example, how many choices should we provide our clients with? Does the type of provided choices make a difference?

Practical Training Recommendations

Below I propose a few practical recommendations based on my understanding of the literature and my extensive exploration of this strategy as a strength & conditioning and kickboxing coach. Hopefully, once I conduct more research on this topic, I will write a part 2 with more decisive answers, but until then, here are my recommendations:  

1 – Follow a less-to-more approach when it comes to the number of choices provided to new clients. To avoid being perceived as insecure or unprofessional, it is a good idea that you make most of the calls in the first few sessions. The client may not even have a sense of what they prefer, so asking them about it may make them feel uncomfortable. Saying that, in the first few sessions I still recommend making room for some choices, even small and task-irrelevant ones (see point number 3). As time goes by, and as you get to know your clients and they get to know you, I suggest involving them to a greater extent in the decision making process. For example, let them choose which exercises they start the session with. Do they prefer walking lunges or split squats? 

2 – For the most part, restrict the provided choices to a range rather than open-ended choices. I will explain using an example:we can ask our clients to perform an exact number of repetitions in a given exercise. Say, 10 repetitions. Alternatively, we can ask them to do as many repetitions as they would like to. I suggest finding a happy medium between these two extremes. Ask them to perform between 8 to 12 or 9 to 11 repetitions, or any other range you see fit. Of course, as a function of goals and personalities, widen or narrow the repetitions range, or use an exact number of repetitions if you see a reason to. Personally, I am big fan of ranges as first and foremost, they allow clients to make choices, but also because it involves them to a greater extent in the training process, and accounts for day-to-day fluctuations in performance. 

3 – Use a variety of choices. Some choices weigh more than others: choosing which exercises to complete first have a greater impact on the end result of a training session than choosing the color of the mats to do sit-ups on. Interestingly enough though, a number of studies found that even task irrelevant choices, such as choosing the color of the golf ball in a golf putting task led to superior motor learning compared to having the color of the ball selected for the control group (8). I recommend using task irrelevant choices with novice clients, and to use more task relevant choices with clients who you have more experience working with. For example, let a novice clients select which cage to squat in, let intermediate clients choose whether they start with biceps curls or triceps extensions, and an advanced client choose whether they start with deadlifts or squats. You get the idea. 

4 – Use common sense. We are dealing with humans after all. Some thrive when allowed to choose and others prefer that you make most of the calls. Both are fine. I have clear memories of coaching two world class combat athletes who trained at the same gym under the same head coach. One loved making choices whereas the other hated it and passed the decision making process back over to me ─ that was his decision. The best coaches I know adapt to their clients. Just make sure you keep in mind that on average, most people prefer to be involved and make at least some choices.  

Hopefully, now that you’ve read this short article, you will let your client be more involved in things like which exercise they’d prefer to begin with, be a little less rigid about making the workout programming about doing something to your clients, and instead be more responsive by making workout programming a fluid process where you’re doing with your clients.

Author Bio:

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Dr. Israel Halperin is a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute in Tel-Aviv University. Israel also works as a strength & conditioning and kickboxing coach, and competed in combat sports for many years. You can read more about his work at www.israelhalperin.com

References :

  1. Halperin, I., Wulf, G., Vigotsky, A. D., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Behm, D. G. (2018). Autonomy: a missing ingredient of a successful program?. Strength & Conditioning Journal40, 18-25.
  2. Wulf, G., & Lewthwaite, R. (2016). Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review23, 1382-1414.
  3. Ekkekakis, P. (2009). Let them roam free?. Sports Medicine39, 857-888.
  4. Halperin, I., Chapman, D. W., Martin, D. T., Lewthwaite, R., & Wulf, G. (2017). Choices enhance punching performance of competitive kickboxers. Psychological research81, 1051-1058.
  5. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The’’ what’’ and’’ why’’ of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
  6. Leotti, L. A., Iyengar, S. S., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 457–463.
  7. Catania, A. C. (1975). Freedom and knowledge: an experiental analysis of performance in pigeons. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 24, 89–106.
  8. Lewthwaite, R., Chiviacowsky, S., Drews, R., & Wulf, G. (2015). Choose to move: the motivational impact of autonomy support on motor learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22, 1383–1388.
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