Personal Fitness Professionals and Neuro Linguistic Programming

The Science & Art of Personal TrainingHow Can Personal Fitness Professionals Can Use Neuro Linguistic Programming

During my 15 plus years being a Personal Trainer, I have become completely convinced that a person’s fitness level is primarily determined by how they see themselves in their own mind. If someone can use their imagination to picture themselves as fit and healthy, then this image prompts consistent fitness & lifestyle activities and a pursuit of improvement. This is a simple idea, but there are very specific things that must be done – deliberately and thoroughly – for the image to take roots. Neuro Linguistic Programming (or NLP) is a very powerful tool for trainers to support clients in achieving this goal.

The field of NLP was co-created by Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder in the 1970s. They asked themselves a simple yet fascinating question: What makes the difference between someone who excels at a skill and someone with basic competence?

Their initial focus was pragmatic, modeling three successful psychotherapists, Fritz Perls (Gestalt Therapy), Virginia Satir (Family Systems Therapy), and eventually Milton H. Erickson (Clinical Hypnosis), with the aim of discovering the successful patterns of behavior and communication which distinguished these individuals from their peers.

From this they developed technology around how we take in information through our senses (neurology), translate it into language (linguistic), and make patterns or mental models (programs) that influence our behaviour. With this powerful technology we can foster greater self-awareness, natural change and personal excellence.

As a fitness club owner, I cringe when I see the super-motivated January crowd hitting the treadmills on New Year’s Day. Sadly, most of these eager folks won’t make it past 6 weeks. The reason they quit is not the pain, time, inconvenience, or anything else they typically site as the reason. Largely, the reason is that their internal processes are not established in a way that will support long term success.

Prior to studying NLP, I’d ask clients the old standard question, “Why didn’t you work out?!” What always followed was their glamorous fabrication that would tug on my heart strings (my kids aren’t sleeping, work is very demanding, my wife doesn’t give me the time to work out, etc.). Then I would let them off the hook, try to be positive and encourage them to do better next week. Soon, I would get the cancellation calls, and it is pretty much downhill from there. (I’m sure you can relate).

This is where NLP comes in handy. NLP gives you a way to begin to deconstruct the old images (the ones that cause the current behavior) and construct the new desired actions. This is empowerment on steroids.

How many clients say their goal is to lose weight and yet they continue to eat fast food and spend far too much time in front of the TV? When someone says that they are committed to working out, but constantly makes excuses (over several weeks) for not doing anything, what their behavior is saying is “I am NOT committed”. Even when they keep telling you they are.

As a starting point it is important to know a little about the differences between the conscious and unconscious mind because the unconscious mind is responsible for 99.9% of your client’s results! The conscious mind is whatever you are paying attention to via the senses. For example if I direct your attention to the feeling of your butt on your chair as you sit and read this or the hum of the computer, this is your conscious mind at work. What we focus on through our conscious attention often enough gets stored as an unconscious program.

Take driving for example; you used to put both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, pay careful attention to what is around you and it took time to get the feel for how hard to press the gas and brake. Now you talk on your cell phone and eat a bagel and get to work wondering if you stopped at the red lights! And that is how our day goes. We have a program for brushing our teeth, a driving program, work programs, how we speak to others, etc. Most of what we do during the day is unconscious. We run on programs that we have created ourselves. The good news is that because we made these programs ourselves, we can make new programs.

To help facilitate a change in your clients programming is important first to develop a strong rapport with them. Rapport is huge with NLP because it allows us to get in tune with our client and creates trust. Rapport is something that you cannot fake because it comes from a level of intentions. If we intend to train the client to make some money or we intend to be fully present at the training session with a genuine acceptance and love for this person and where they are at, regardless of their behaviours (in NLP we learn that the person is not their behaviours). There is a big difference between these intentions and I think it is important to set your before every training session. Go into each session with a positive state of curiosity and creativity so that you convey to your clients that change is possible.

In order to really build rapport you can start to practice mirroring and matching. This simply means that you take on their state by matching their tone of voice, the pace of their breathing and their postures to name a few. Basically you will be copying them. It might feel unnatural at first but when done with the right intentions you will get good at it. You do it already; did you ever sit and chat with a close friend and notice that you both were leaning into the chair the same way and both had the same leg crossed? This is because you are in true rapport with them. No work or conscious attention was needed. And this is also the best way to gain rapport with someone that you are working with. Imagine they are a very close friend and your body language, the way you speak and your attitude will align with theirs and this unconsciously sends out feelings of familiarity and comfort.

One caveat for mirroring and matching is that you have to be careful not to get caught up in the same patterns they are accessing. You need to have empathy and be engaged but also aware of your state as you may need to “lead” (another NLP term which means taking them from one state to another more desirable state based on their goals) them into another state.

So you meet with the same client and their glamorous fabrications. Instead of listening to them put all that energy and fight so hard for their limitations, what do you do? You simply ask them, “Why are you telling me this?” This is called a “pattern interruption” which is a basic but powerful NLP technique where you interrupt the pattern of behaviour that is causing the person a problem. The first time you create this mild state of uncertainty (it could also be done in other ways such as dropping a pen or tying your shoe) you will be surprised at how their state has changed, as if they are stuck looking for what will happen next. This gives you the opportunity to suggest another outcome.

Guide the client to talk to you about what they actually do want. NLP specifies that the Goal must be stated in the positive. I still hear people say all the time that they must think more positively but they continue to describe their situations in life in one of the following two ways. They describe what they are trying to avoid; “I don’t want to be fat anymore” and what they currently have a result; “This relationship I am in just sucks”! Instead practice is needed to formulate new programs, remember the unconscious mind? It directs our behaviours based on it’s programs. If you want to be a healthy bodyweight you have to get those images down.

Saying that you want to be “fit” is not enough. Much more detail is needed to write a new program. It can be tough at first because it is like flexing new muscles so start to ask your clients these types of questions to build in the details. When will you know you have attained it (your goal)? What will this outcome allow you to do? What will others be saying when they see you? What do you need to get your outcome? Have you done this before? Can you act as if you already have this goal? Be patient with them while they formulate the answers (as it can be uncomfortable) and stay in rapport with them (matching breathing, etc). Calmly remind them that being uncomfortable with this is very normal and that they are on the right track.

The clients I have seen get the best results spend time creating pictures of a new result. They write down this story and they monitor what they are thinking about to make the prerequisite identity level shifts. To facilitate these types of shifts it’s important to pay attention their language and ask questions that move them towards something new. NLP works primarily as a linguistic intervention that changes how the client thinks, by ‘reframing’ their experience.

For example when a client says, “I am too old to get lean”, you can ask these types of questions; “According to whom?”, “What is that you do now that you could not do two months ago?”, “Has anyone your age been there”? These questions take a client from a one sentence generalization to great pictures of how great the now look dropping 2 dress sizes, and how they can lunge across the gym floor with 25lb dumbbells and how they inspired their daughter to get into an exercise class, etc. It really is amazing! It is best to listen intently and let them start to formulate their answers.

Another powerful technique is the use of “Anchors”. An anchor is basically a response to a certain stimulus. I’m sure you have heard of Pavlov’s dogs where the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. We have many anchors set up in our physiology. For example, you might think of home when you smell apple pie baking or if someone touches your shoulder there is an immediate thought of your basketball coach telling you to get in the game. Anchors can be set up to help your clients achieve specific results.

As a means of eliciting a client to “feel like” working out you can ask them to recall a time when they had a particularly awesome workout. Then guide them to remember the experience fully. They would be guided to imagining the experience of a great workout and at the peak of this visualization they can set a psycho-physiology cue or anchor. This could be a phrase or a physical movement. This visualization works because the mind cannot tell the difference between what is imagined and what is real and the anchor sets the experience in their physiology which they can now access at any time. Anchors can be set for feeling relaxed in public, performing well in sports, etc.

I think it is important to note that this article is very limited. In order to assist your clients to change successfully requires much more NLP training than this article could ever deliver. What the truly successful NLP Practitioners do is a result of much practice and becoming unconsciously competent at many techniques.

I hope you have found this information interesting and when practiced you notice it is useful. Clients need to know how to do the exercises but I find many are not too concerned with the physiology of a bicep curl and could care less what their “brachial radialis” is. What I think they are looking for is how to change. NLP is a wonderful set of tools to help your clients do just that! Enjoy!


Author: Marc Lebert
Marc Lebert is the owner of Lebert Fitness Inc. a world leader in developing innovative bodyweight training tools. He is a fitness Club Owner, Black Belt, a Certified NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Practitioner and International Presenter. Marc developed the Lebert Equalizer TM, The Lebert Buddy System TM and The Lebert Stretch Strap TM. These portable and versatile tools are being used in Boot Camps, Fitness Clubs, Military, School/Athletic programs and more! To see more please visit www.LebertFitness.com

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