Motivational Interviewing for Personal Trainers

Should you use motivational interviewing in your fitness practice?

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a hot topic in the fitness industry right now. Some consider it a tool to address tough conversations, increase personal motivation, and increase a client’s self efficacy. But should fitness professionals be using MI techniques with clients? There is a lot of hype and misinformation out there.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about motivational interviewing – the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’ll learn how to effectively and ethically apply MI strategies or when it’s better to avoid them.

We'll explore questions like:

  • What exactly is motivational interviewing and how does it work?

  • What evidence is there that MI enhances motivation and fitness outcomes?

  • What are the limitations for fitness pros using MI without proper training?

  • How can improper use of motivational interviewing techniques backfire and harm client trust?

  • What are practical strategies to boost motivation that do stay within a coach’s scope of practice?

  • How can you build your coaching skills with tools like Healthy Behavior Change?

With conflicting opinions and advice floating around, it’s crucial to get the full story on motivational interviewing. That way you can make informed decisions about client communication and stay in your lane as a fitness pro. This guide breaks down motivational interviewing benefits, risks, alternatives, and implementation in a practical way.

Whether you’re a curious personal trainer, gym owner, strength coach, or fitness instructor, you’ll learn the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to motivational interviewing. Most importantly, you’ll gain actionable insights on how to have empowering coaching conversations that achieve results and build client relationships.

Let’s dive in and explore the truth about motivational interviewing for fitness professionals!

What is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a counseling technique developed in the 1980s by psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. The goal of motivational interviewing is to strengthen a person’s own motivation and commitment to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

Some key principles of MI include:

  • Collaboration between the counselor and client

  • Evoking the client’s own reasons for change

  • Honoring client autonomy

  • Avoiding arguments and confrontation

Motivational interviewing counselors use open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summaries to gradually guide clients towards realizing the importance of change.

On the surface, MI seems like an ideal approach for fitness professionals wanting to motivate clients. By tapping into intrinsic motivation, it empowers the client to voice their own reasons to get healthier.

However, this is where both the power and peril of motivational interviewing lie.

Handled improperly, the open exploration of change motivation can stray into deep psychological territory that fitness pros lack qualifications to address.

For example, evoking a client’s desire to lose weight may surface body image issues, a history of eating disorders, or trauma linked to past shaming. Well-meaning but untrained coaches can easily end up out of their depth when probing “why” questions dredge up sensitive issues.

Fitness professionals need to be careful.

The client may reveal vulnerabilities and past struggles their trainer is unprepared to handle. Canned MI responses like reflecting statements without clinical skills risk retraumatizing clients.

What separates MI from general coaching is the unstructured digging into reasons for resistance and ambivalence.

So while MI offers potential, it also holds pitfalls for fitness professionals lacking clinical backgrounds. The psychologically vulnerable space MI creates requires training to navigate safely and ethically.

The Good: Motivational Interviewing Research and Applications

There is substantial scientific evidence demonstrating MI’s effectiveness for supporting behavior change across diverse settings and populations.

Healthcare Applications

Within healthcare, MI has been shown to positively impact conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and substance abuse when implemented by properly trained clinicians and therapists (Lundahl et al, 2013).

For example, an MI intervention for obese patients delivered by dietitians resulted in greater weight loss compared to traditional counseling (Carels et al, 2007). MI has also been used successfully to reduce problem drinking in at-risk college students (LaBrie et al, 2013).

Fitness Applications

Research also indicates MI can boost exercise adherence when applied in fitness settings.

One study found an 8-week MI program increased total physical activity time by over 180 minutes per week in previously inactive adults (Harland et al, 1999).

In this study, MI sessions were delivered by clinical psychologists with expertise in the approach. Participants met with them several times over 2 months to set physical activity goals and discuss motivational barriers.

Another study showed MI led to higher fitness center attendance compared to standard counseling (Low et al, 2013).

Again, the MI counseling was facilitated by providers with backgrounds in clinical psychology who received training from MI co-founder Stephen Rollnick.

These studies demonstrate that under controlled conditions, with MI implemented by seasoned clinicians, the techniques can increase exercise motivation and fitness behaviors.

However, their settings differ significantly from the average health club floor. Most fitness professionals lack the clinical skills and training of the counselors in these trials.

So while the research shows promise, it’s crucial not to conflate MI success by clinical psychologists with trainers attempting similar techniques without that level of expertise.

In the wrong hands, MI questioning can veer off course and cause harm, opening up sensitive issues that coaches aren’t equipped to handle.

Clearly, when rigorously applied strategically by highly trained professionals, MI holds great potential for supporting health and fitness behavior changes. But most fitness staff require additional training to use MI techniques safely.

The Bad: Lack of Formal Training

Here’s where things get tricky: Most fitness professionals do not have formal clinical training in MI counseling methods.

A one-day MI workshop or crash course does not equip someone with the specialized skills to properly facilitate MI conversations. However, many trainers and coaches are led to believe surface knowledge of MI concepts is sufficient to drive positive client outcomes.

This overconfidence opens the floodgates to ethically ambiguous situations that fitness staff are unprepared to handle. Using MI techniques without parameters or training can damage client trust and the professional relationship.

Proper MI training involves much more than learning the basic principles. Counselors must hone complex skills like:

  • Handling resistance and ambivalence

  • Managing emotional conversations

  • Establishing and maintaining boundaries

  • Referring out serious issues like trauma, domestic abuse, eating disorders, depression

With only minimal exposure to MI, it’s unlikely a fitness pro will have developed the nuanced competencies required to deploy it safely. However, the temptation exists to start using MI questioning – often with good intentions but detrimental results.

For example, a trainer may think they’re “helping” by asking a client struggling with weight loss to share underlying emotional reasons for overeating. But they lack training to address trauma that surfaces around childhood bullying.

The client feels exploited, the trainer feels incompetent, and damage is done to the professional relationship.

Without proper expertise, MI is too complex a tool for most fitness professionals to ethically leverage. A surface understanding gives an illusion of competence that sets well-meaning coaches up for missteps.

Extensive training and supervised practice is required to skillfully facilitate MI as a clinical counseling approach. Attempting to adopt MI strategies without that depth of knowledge risks harming clients and crossing ethical lines.

The Ugly: Opening Pandora's Box

This sets the stage for what I call “opening Pandora’s box” – unleashing a torrent of unresolved client issues fitness professionals lack qualifications to address.

For example, probing motivation using MI techniques could inadvertently unearth past trauma, mental health disorders, or other vulnerabilities contributing to a client’s struggles.

Are most personal trainers qualified to provide counseling on trauma, depression, or eating disorders? The reality is no. Yet many fitness pros diving into MI find themselves venturing beyond their scope of practice.

While well-intentioned, lacking the skills to address deep-rooted issues uncovered through MI can ultimately do more harm than good. Pandora’s box is opened, and neither coach nor client is equipped to handle the contents.

Once Pandora’s box is opened, the damage often cannot be undone. No amount of motivational interviewing training can prepare unlicensed fitness professionals to ethically navigate the minefield of past trauma, abuse, mental illness and other sensitivities that may arise.

Treading into that territory with underqualified good intentions can haunt both coach and client.

Stay In Scope: Focus on Goals, Not Causes

This is not to say fitness professionals cannot play a pivotal role in empowering clients’ behavior change. But MI alone is not the panacea, especially when improperly implemented.

Here are some recommendations for using behavior change tools effectively while staying in scope:

- Focus on setting and achieving goals:

Avoid probing “why” questions that delve into potentially sensitive psychological territory. Instead, collaborate with clients to set specific, measurable goals, action plans, and customized strategies.

- Listen actively:

Reflect clients’ statements without judgment, but avoid attempts to unpack trauma or diagnose disorders. Validate clients’ struggles while keeping the focus on achievable objectives.

- Have resources available:

Know when issues raised require referral to a licensed mental health practitioner. Have a list of trusted professionals to whom you can direct clients if needed.

- Use a variety of tools:

MI questioning is one tool, but not the only one. Supplement with other strategies like building self-efficacy, providing social support, identifying small wins, and avenues of education specifically designed for fitness professionals.

360 Wellness Coaching

Rather than relying solely on motivational interviewing techniques, take a full, evidence-based behavior change process approach like the Behavior Science-Powered 360 Wellness Coaching certification.

This structured system guides fitness professionals through the stages of healthy behavior coaching and facilitating behaviour change while remaining focused and in scope. In this certification you’ll not only learn how to add 360 Wellness Coaching as a profitable service, you’ll also discover how to: 

1. Explore current behaviors without judgment using structured questions and prompts that keep you in your lane as a fitness professional.

2. Clarify goals by collaborating with clients to identify motivation and paint a visual picture of success.

3. Bridge the gap between current and ideal realities by setting realistic goals and creating customized strategies.

4. Troubleshoot obstacles through problem-solving and building self-efficacy.

5. Support the client with tools like accountability, goodness of fit, social support, and celebrating small wins.

The 360 Wellness system provides step-by-step training for having structured coaching conversations that keep the focus on achievable behavior changes within a fitness professional’s scope of practice.

The Takeaway: Motivational Interviewing Has Value and Limitations

Motivational interviewing is not a magic bullet, especially when improperly implemented by untrained fitness staff.

The Good:

Substantial research demonstrates the efficacy of motivational interviewing for supporting behavior change around health conditions like obesity and substance abuse. It shows promise for improving exercise adherence as well.

The Bad:

Most fitness professionals lack the specialized clinical training to facilitate sensitive MI conversations. Using MI techniques without structure or parameters risks venturing beyond qualifications.

The Ugly:

Attempting motivational interviewing without proper expertise could open up unresolved psychological issues that neither coach nor client is equipped to handle.

By combining motivational interviewing tools with other evidence-based behavior change strategies within a structured system like 360 Wellness Coaching, fitness professionals can empower clients’ success while staying in scope.

About the Author

Dr. Janine Stichter has over 20 years of experience in behavioral change research, education, and coaching. As co-founder of the Healthy Behavior Institute, she is passionate about equipping fitness professionals with practical, evidence-based behavior change tools they can apply within their scope of practice to help clients succeed.

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