Posted by on Oct 17, 2014

Jason is a coach and algebra teacher devoted to bringing quality fitness education and coaching to the everyman. Founder of Anyman Fitness, Jason uses his mathematical background to help clients acheive their goals. Want to train with Jason? Check out his Fitocracy Team: No Cardio Fat Shredding 3.0.

Clients and teenagers have more in common than you might think

It happens to nearly every coach. No one is completely immune.

Even the best of the best have gone through this.  It doesn’t matter who you are, from a first-timer working the floor at a commercial gym, to Jillian Michaels herself.

You make a sweet program.  A kick-butt program.  A sure-fire, never fail, 100% fat-shredding, gains-producing guaranteed program… and the client just doesn’t do it.

So disappointing.

And we balk.  Just a little.  Okay, perhaps more than just a little.  We get frustrated.  Upset.  Insulted, even.  Maybe we classify the client as “lazy”, or “uncoachable”.

And that might be the case. But in reality, it’s probably not.

Spending a significant amount of time in the classroom instills in an intelligent educator one extremely valuable skill:

How to get people to do things they really don’t want to do.

Now, we might not be talking about the Pythagorean Theorem in this article, or debating all things pi, but in essence, the logic remains the same for the personal trainer as it does for the classroom teacher.  Just as the 13 year old would rather be texting, eating, Tweeting, and taking selfies than factoring polynomials, most 30-somethings would rather be texting, eating, Tweeting, and taking selfies… than lifting heavy and counting their macros.


And this is what makes the job of a trainer difficult.  This is our challenge.  This is quite literally the only roadblock from having disappointment after disappointment as a trainer. (Well, that and having your before and after portfolio look like it’s straight out of a supplement magazine – with real pictures and no Photoshopping.)

Enter Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), a Russian psychologist, spent his entire, brief life analyzing the human mind and its inner workings.  Working with children, he sought to optimize the knowledge acquisition process.  He spent his days trying to shorten the time required for the learner to go from “ignorant” (knowing nothing) – to having “wisdom” (being able to apply their knowledge to all aspects of life).

His findings pointed to a “zone” that children, and ultimately, all people in general, worked best in.  This “zone” was the point just beyond the ability level of the subject.

In order to fully stimulate a person into wanting to do more (ie –  “motivate”), the tasks at hand must be just a touch more difficult than the individual is capable of.

This way, the person would be neither bored from the task’s simplicity, nor intimidated by the task’s complexity.  In the educational world, this “zone” has been named the Zone of Proximal Development.

The Zone of Proximal Development is highlighted with this graph:

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

As you can see from this representation, at the start of the journey, the subject must be given rather simple tasks – but they still must be just beyond their ability level.  As the subject gains more knowledge, the difficulty level of the challenges presented must change as well or the subject will become bored and disinterested.

Educators know this: the balance must continue at all times.  And if it does, the individual improves and improves and improves… and what’s the word we use for that?

Education. Or, oh yeah, gains.

Enter Resistance Training


Sometimes even top athletes with incredible mustaches hurt themselves lifting weights.

Seriously. Why? Why does this happen?

Yeah, endorphins are nice.  But lifting to the point of tearing something is a bit more extreme than an endorphin rush.

Do powerlifters push themselves past the point of pain for the fame?  The glory?  Quick, name ONE of the top 10 powerlifters in the world.  If you CAN, you’re one of very few on this planet with that knowledge.

For the money?  Yeah, right.  These guys spend more on protein in one week than they earn in one, full calendar year.

Is it for the BIIIIIIG numbers?  The respect from your community?  The roar of the crowd?  The fear you can strike in the hearts of mere mortal civilians?


But again, perhaps not.

All one must do is look at Vygotsky’s work to realize the psychological advantages which come from accomplishing small tasks, each one just a tad more arduous than the task before.

Which any weight lifter can tell you is the very objective of proper progressive overload.

The endorphins?  Child’s play compared to the psychological advantages to the ultimate in incremental accomplishments in weight training:

The PR.

The PR is the physical manifestation of psychological achievement.  It’s the actual, nuts-and-bolts, concrete, hands-on proof that you can do something you weren’t able to previously conquer.

Ask any lifter.  When you PR your lifts?
DOMS be damned – you’re skipping out of that gym.

how i feel walking out of the gym

Just PR’d 3 lifts. You can call me Iron Man.

And the guy in the picture?  With one eye?

He’s become addicted to this psychological feeling of satisfaction.  He’s become a slave to the rush of conquering the previously unattainable.

And he’s been at this a long time. He probably wasn’t going for a huge PR.  10, maybe 20 pounds, tops.

But he’s been lifting the heavy weights for so long and he’s made so many incremental improvements, that he hoisted the weight, held his breath, began his lift, and pushed with all his might.

And this happened.

Vygotsky would have nodded his head in understanding.

Applications for the Trainee

So far, we’ve looked at nothing but theory.  But things change in practice – and always remain the same in theory.

How can we “zone in”, if we’ve never done this before?   How do we remain actively engaged in the process of fitness, without being either “bored” or “burned out” (or forever in need of an eye patch)?

A few actionable items:

1.  Have a support system.

The idea that there is at least some level of guidance is an integral part of being in the Zone.  After all, the tasks presented surpass the individual’s current ability level.  They will need guidance and support.

Luckily, in this day and age, someone new to the world of fitness has countless options:

  • Reading a favorite website or methodology/ideology
  • Hiring of an online coach
  • Becoming a member of an online community, such as Fitocracy
  • Finding a workout partner or buddy
  • Enrolling in a fitness-related class

There’s no shortage of options if one digs deep enough.  But you can’t do this alone.  The odds of success greatly diminish if the subject is 100% solo in their endeavors.  Human interaction is a basic, integral piece to our ability to thrive as a society.  Its presence will enhance your experience tremendously.

2.  Challenge yourself appropriately.

This falls into the category of “have a plan.”

Be sure you have proper programming parameters – and know exactly what you will be doing each day.  Each workout should push you just a wee bit further than you were pushed during your last training session.  Whether that manifests itself to 5 extra pounds on the barbell, an extra half-mile’s worth of walking on the treadmill, or shortening your rest periods by 5 seconds on the current circuit you’re doing.

Your workout should be reasonable.  Your “extra” for each training session should have a purpose.  Each session is a puzzle piece in the Great Realm of Fitness.  Your “extra” should be difficult, but attainable.  Challenging, and yet realistic.

By the very definition, if you’re not progressing, you’re standing still.  The antithesis to progress isn’t regression……’s complacency.

3.  Set performance based (not aesthetically based) goals.

Although your REAL reason for training may be to look awesome in that bathing suit, or one day have a 6-pack, we need to be sure we don’t include that in our actual goals. (Check out the full article I wrote about this.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong about vanity.  Except for one, small, glaring contradiction:  If your ultimate goal is “Get a 6-pack”, and you are 40 pounds overweight, how long do you think getting that washboard stomach will take?

If you consistently have to look at yourself in the mirror, day in and day out, and answer the HARSH truth – that you’re nowhere NEAR your goal, how unbelievably deflating is that?

Now, on the other hand, if each day your goal is actionable, and performance  based…………your goal can be accomplished on a regular, daily basis.

Now, will you accomplish your objective each and every time?  Of course not.

But will you accomplish your objective on a (relatively) regular basis?  Probably.

And what an amazing sense of pride and success that will give you.  You set a goal and attempted a task, that quite literally, at the last session you had, you could not do.  And this time?  You nailed it.

Side note:  Do this for long enough, and that 6-pack you’re searching for?  It’ll happen anyways.  Sort of like a “bonus.”

4.  Take rational, objective data and eliminate emotion.

Emotions have no place in proper health and fitness.  Which is a complete and utter paradox.

Most begin in the world of fitness due to the desire to change.  There is an unhappiness about one’s current standing, and there are loads of emotions attached to the individual.

Taking objective data points and making any training and dieting alterations based on those objective data points (AND NOTHING ELSE) will hasten progress quicker than any other decision-making parameters available.

5.  Reflect often.

Constantly ask yourself how things are going.  Is there anything that’s working exceptionally well?  Anything which needs to be tinkered with?  Rep ranges?  Rest periods?  Exercise selection?

How about your diet?  Are you abnormally hungry often?  Is your strength and performance continuing to improve in the gym?  Are your body measurements progressing as they should?

How’s your consistency?  What “slip-ups” or mishaps happened this week?  How can we plan ahead and improve our consistency and our compliance next week?  Are there any small strategies we can implement in order to ensure proper progress takes place?

Just be sure that as you reflect, you don’t “toss out” anything that simply “scares you.”  The whole point of self improvement is to begin to lose your anxieties, face the uncomfortable, and become confident in your own skin.

6.  Never give up.

You’re going to have good days.  You’re going to have bad days.  You’ll have days where you PR 3 lifts in one day, and walk out of that gym on top of the world – you’ll be the Baddest Mofo Out There.


And you’ll have days where nothing feels right.  You’re sluggish.  You’re lackadaisical.  You’re in a funk.  Your strength is off, and you feel terrible.  Accept this as a part of the process.

Always remember, it’s a journey, not a destination.

You can never focus on the output.  The output is the result of the hard work.

As Vygotsky reminded us time and time again, it’s within these walls of development, this “Zone,” if you will, that true intellectual knowledge and understanding begin to mold itself.

And if we give up?  We’re cooked.  Done.  Everything we have worked for will be reversed – eventually.

It’s important to make our endeavors sustainable.  To choose a method of fitness we can consistently perform on a regular basis. Especially if you haven’t enjoyed your previous fitness endeavors.

If you hate cardio, stop doing it.  If you loathe lifting, drop the barbells.  If you think yoga is a waste of time, there’s no reason to “namaste.”

Engagement is a crucial part of the process.  Too much, too little, or an inadequate “buy-in” can all derail the process to a certain degree.

So, find something that you like.  And do it.  Forever.  Allow it to become ingrained into the fiber of your very being.  Let it be a part of your soul.  Make it an unwavering truth, a constant in your daily life.

And never give it up.  No matter what.

Practical Applications for the Coach and/or Trainer

One could make a correct assumption that the trainee isn’t the only one who often misses the Zone of Proximal Development.  Coaches aren’t immune from not understanding, psychologically speaking, how this process works.

Coaches often give a directive, or an order, and then whine and complain when it’s not carried out.  Now that you have a bit more of an idea about how human knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is gained, perhaps you can see a bit more clearly.

If your client isn’t actively engaged in the process of their own health or fitness, they aren’t being appropriately challenged just beyond their comfort level.  One of two things has happened.  Either the information you have given them is too simple/easy (possible, but not likely), or you’ve given them too much, and they are starting to feel anxiety (generally more likely for the beginner).

So, before you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, well.  This person is just LAZY, and is destined for failure,” ask yourself – have you done the following?

  • Have you asked and addressed your client’s current standing, health and fitness wise?  Do you know his/her abilities?
  • Are you aware of your client’s knowledge level?
  • Have you given your client “homework” and “tasks” to accomplish, instead of giving them “expectations” and “demands”?
  • Have you asked open-ended questions in an attempt to engage and build trust?
  • Have you provided clear and concise rationale behind your methods when asked, or are you “put off” when you get an inquiry?
  • Have you engaged the client in the decision making process themselves?  Or has everything been handed to them?
  • Have you asked your client for self-reflection, or checked in with them, whether it’s the “four week mark” or not?

A few actionable items that coaches can easily integrate into their programs, to help their clients be in the “zone.”

  • Give your clients the opportunity to set their own macros, or at least help them to make adjustments independently, if needed.
  • Eliminate using “online macro/calorie trackers” with clients – force the issue of counting and tracking your food independently, daily, in order to promote this crucial skill.
  • Set daily, reachable goals with your clients.  Make them aware of the goals before you begin.  Acknowledgement of the task which is “just beyond” the person’s ability level is a crucial step in this process.  The individual must be very aware they will be attempting something they haven’t accomplished in the past.
  • Give your clients options when faced with an issue.  Have them choose one of the options, and have them provide a rationale as to why they chose in that manner.
  • Encourage your client to join an online community, such as Fitocracy, to be with other, like-minded individuals.
  • Be positive – at all times – no matter what.  Negativity has no place in a client/coach relationship.
  • Always find the successes in what your client has done – and publicly announce them – assuming they are comfortable with that.
  • Whether you charge $1,000+ or mere pennies for your services – ALWAYS remember – that your profession is not about YOU.  It’s about THEM.  You are here to serve.  If you dedicate yourself to this philosophy and ideology 100% of the time, you will reap the benefits in the long run.

Although Lev Vygotsky’s work was primarily with children, the takeaways from his massive body of evidence are quite simply as relevant today as they were in the early 20th century.  Work hard.  Don’t be afraid of failure.  Take risks.  Attack your tasks with vigor.  Enlist the help of others.

These concepts, although not foreign to all, at times appear to be missing in our society.  Our inundation with instantaneous gratification and the avoidance of any strenuous and anxiety-inducing situation has created a real void in the satisfaction of our personal accomplishments.

tight rope walker


Anything worth doing should frighten you.  Just a little bit.  Which doesn’t mean there should be avoidance.  In fact, just the opposite.  The anxiety should be the very REASON the task is handled first.

We should all become a bit more comfortable being uncomfortable.

The path to true greatness lies just outside of your happy place.


Constructivism:  Theory, Perspectives, and Practice.  Catherine Twomey Fosnot.  Teacher’s College Press, 2nd Edition.  2005.

Featured image courtesy of World Bank Photo Collection and used under a Creative Commons License.

Share Button