The Future of Fitness is a Radically Client-Centered Gym

I know, you’re probably reading this and thinking “aren’t all gyms generally client-centered?” Well, let’s start by mentioning the fact that larger gyms count on clients not showing up, so no, the most prominent gyms that people are familiar with are not, in fact, client-centered. But surely the average private gym or CrossFit box down the street is client-centered, right? To varying degrees these gyms — which are far more personal than your average Planet Fitness or World Gym — are more client-centered than the Globo-gym alternatives. But while smaller gyms do have an incentive to help their clients, they aren’t as radically client-centered as they could be.

So what does it mean for a gym to be client-centered? We can gain some insight from other fields that use “client-centric” approaches. For example, in the field of psychology, there is an approach called client-centered therapy where the “individual personal experience” of the client is paramount. This contrasts with the “dispassionate” approach taken in other therapies and involves “a responsible acknowledgment of one’s freedom.” Likewise, the cornerstones of a client-centered approach to fitness are (1) a passion for improving the personal experience of the individual, and (2) respect for the individual’s autonomy.  In order for such an approach to work, three factors must be present: 

  1. Congruence: the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade.
  2. Unconditional positive regard: the therapist offers an acceptance and prizing for their client for who he or she is without conveying disapproving feelings, actions or characteristics and demonstrating a willingness to attentively listen without interruption, judgement or giving advice.
  3. Empathy: the therapist communicates their desire to understand and appreciate their client’s perspective.

While this description is tailored to cognitive therapy, the principles translate fairly well to the client-coach relationship. To this end, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) discusses some staples of a client-centered approach as it differs from an expert-centered approach:

“As we learn more about behavior change and what works and what doesn’t work in helping people to sustain health behavior changes like eating healthier and getting regular physical activity, it has become increasingly clear that we need to change our approach from telling people what to do, to helping guide people to making healthful choices. The final goal could end up being similar, or even the same, but when the client sets the agenda with the guidance of the health and fitness professional (the “expert”), rather than the health and fitness professional setting the agenda, the outcome is usually much better.”

A client-centered approach is one that tries to improve the client experience by building a personal, empathic relationship while respecting the client’s autonomy and personal preferences. Smaller gyms might do this to one extent or another, though the structured approach of the typical personal or group training program creates a barrier between the coach (acting as the “expert”) and the client (acting as the “subject”). While it is important to recognize that the coach has (or should have) significant expertise, it is also important to recognize the subjectivity and nuance of the various aspects of fitness, nutrition, and health. Fitness professionals that have sufficient expertise, yet recognize this subjectivity and nuance (which itself can be considered a necessary component to one’s expertise), can educate their clients about effective fitness approaches, introduce them to unfamiliar practices that they may find enticing, and guide their fitness approach within the confines of what they enjoy doing.

While a good gym atmosphere might be created through a top-down system where the head coach is somewhat receptive to his or her gym members, a truly great gym exists when the clientele is the driving force behind the exercise program. This is the difference between basic client-centrism and a more radical variant of this principle.

Imagine for a moment you are in the market for a logo design. If you went to a graphic designer and gave them the basic concept of what you would want the logo to look like and they made a design without including you in the process any further, you would likely be far less satisfied with the result than if they consulted you every step of the way. You would likely be even more satisfied with the results if the designer sat down at their computer with you, including you directly in the process and showing you what tools can be used and how they may use them. The radically client-centered approach is based on this principle.

We hope to cultivate this atmosphere in your new gym, and we are asking for your help to make this a reality. In the coming days we will be announcing a gathering for you as a potential client to meet members of your new gym community, where you can tell us what kind of gym you would like to be a part of. We want to know what sorts of equipment you want to use, what types of classes you wish to attend, and even have input as to the gym’s physical location. In return for this input, we simply ask that you help us by purchasing your membership ahead of time, or giving a generous donation. By doing this you will receive a discounted rate for our services and use of the facility. More details on this will come, so stay tuned for updates. We thank you for your support, and look forward to serving you!

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