What’s the best way to get someone to start working out?
Dr. Jade Teta – Integrative Physician, Naturopath, Coach
If you want a person to change you have to be aware of the core needs of the human brain. Those needs are:
Whether people are consciously aware of these needs or not, they are at play in every choice and decision they make. Four of these needs are at play in whether or not someone will pick up weight training or not.
Status can be thought of as achievement. If you’re going to introduce a person to the gym you want to make sure the experience they have is one they feel they can excel at. This is why you may want to start them out with simple moves where they can see quick results, like the deadlift or squat instead of complex moves like the power clean or snatch. It’s also why those who want to overcorrect on form may be inadvertently making their friend feel like a failure. Give them easy wins early to hit their status need.
Freedom and certainty are closely related. They’re like two sides of the same coin. When thinking about getting someone into lifting, be flexible on the approach and don’t view everything through the gym lens. Perhaps a home gym provides more freedom (train when they want) and certainty (a familiar environment). Not everyone sees the gym as an enjoyable place. In fact, many see it in a negative light – conjuring images of huge grunting men in string tank tops. While you may think that’s cool, they may see it as the last thing they want to associate with.
Connection is key. If you can turn the gym into a place where they can connect with like-minded individuals, that’s perfect. If the gym can be a place where you and your friend get quality time together, perfect.
Finally, and most importantly, meaning. We humans seek meaning above all else. If you can tie a person’s weight lifting pursuits to their chosen meaning you will succeed every time.
I had a patient who struggled with her fitness pursuit for years… until I shared a study with her that children adopt the healthy (or unhealthy) habits of their parents. Her purpose was her little girl who she wanted to instill strength and independence in. For the first time she connected the gym in her mind as a way to achieve that. She never looked back. – Jade Teta
Thoren Bradley – Natural Bodybuilder, Strength & Conditioning Coach
Consider that person’s perspective. Think about why he or she doesn’t want to be in the gym. Intimidation and motivation are there biggest barriers.
Remember your first day of high school? You probably hyped it up in your head for years as a place being packed full of intimidation. You had stress, anxiety, and maybe you just didn’t even like class. But if it wasn’t for being forced to go to school, at least a couple kids would opt to stay in mom’s hot car while she’s at work instead of braving that environment over again.
Fast forward to now. Social media is filled with videos of “over the top” gym goers making it seem like it’s a place only for super experienced or fit individuals.
It isn’t, and those of us who are there regularly know that all too well. But I mean come on, it’s easy to see why people might shy away from finding a gym to jump into the lifestyle. I’m not advocating the infamous purple gym (you know the one) to hide from it all. But there needs to be some sort of introduction that’ll allow a person to ease into it.
Social anxiety may be the biggest thing keeping these individuals from really diving in and learning to enjoy fitness. I know you might be saying, “But Thoren, can’t these shy people just work out at home?”
Sure they can! But when you haven’t yet established a routine, then laundry, cooking, cleaning, and family time is always going to be a distraction. There will always be a mountain of excuses at home that are left behind when you leave the house for a workout.
How to help: Offer this person some times or places to work out that are quiet and have low foot traffic. Let them get into the swing of things before they experience the gym during busy times. Emphasize the fact that it’ll be “dead” around that time and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much more quickly they warm up to the idea of working out more often.
Now let’s talk motivation and get a little scientific with it. Motivation to stick to a routine is different from one person to the next, and we can’t treat each individual like they’re supposed to share our same reasons for getting into exercise. Extrinsic factors like our appearance, social rewards, and praise are often reasons people begin exercise.
Unfortunately, these factors aren’t really linked to long-term program/lifestyle adherence. For example, let’s say “Kim” jumps into an exercise regimen to get revenge on her ex for dumping her. She wants to show him by improving her physique and getting a body that turns heads and fuels jealousy.
But hold on… As time goes by and her anger fades, so will her desire to show up and kill it in the gym (unless she’s found more reasons to keep going). Why?
Because these emotions aren’t sustainable. You want abs? Great! But if you’re doing it to look good for other people, that motivation starts to slip and be replaced by other needs and priorities.
How to help: Assist your friend in developing intrinsic motivation. It’s been shown time and time again that finding motivation through enjoyment, social interaction, and personal satisfaction promotes longer lasting adherence to lifestyle changes. So…
- Make sure they enjoy the workout!
- Pick a modality of exercise that appeals to them. Don’t force them into powerlifting if bodybuilding appeals to them more.
- Make sure to give them verbal recognition of their improvements. The more they hear it, the more they’ll stick with it.
- Community is everything. Finding a gym that matches their interests will give them that sense of fellowship and accountability. Why do you think so many people get so “all in” with CrossFit? It’s that sense of community that keeps people coming around. – Thoren Bradley
Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach
My answer won’t be popular in today’s PC climate, but there’s no denying that “fat shaming” works.
I don’t know if we’re just talking about fat people here, but scorn and ridicule carries a lot of weight with it in terms of getting someone to change their life. There are times to coddle someone: during the loss of a loved one or a break up or things of that nature. But people make choices to become obese or to allow their health to deteriorate. And more often than not, coddling isn’t what they need. They’ve been doing enough of that on their own.
When I went through my “fitness journey” to get my fat ass back in shape, it was the guy I was working with that prodded me forwards. How? By telling me every single week, “You’re still fat,” no matter how lean I got.
Not until I was literally stage-ready did he stop with the “you’re still fat” stuff. He later told me that was his plan: to keep telling me I was fat until I actually got very, very lean. In fact, I remember him telling me, “You’d need to be like 190 to actually be decently lean.” I raged with the intensity of 10,000 suns over that comment.
I remember reading a story a while back about a guy that did something similar to his friend. He texted him that he was a fat ass every single day for a year. The guy lost a metric butt-ton of weight in that year. He admitted that he’d never have done it had his friend not “shamed” him.
Now let me be clear, there’s a significant difference between making fun of someone in a very demeaning way and offering them up some harsh criticism about the current state of their health (or the decline of it).
Our friends who care the most are often the ones that are hardest on us. Telling someone, “Listen, you’ve really let yourself go. You’re lazy and fat and if you give a shit about yourself, you’ll do something to change it” is a form of loving them.
It might not feel good to speak to someone you care about in such a way, but your motives and intentions behind it matter the most. So tell that fatty you love to get off the couch. – Paul Carter
Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor
Tread carefully and get your own fitness in order first.
Start by examining your intentions. Why do you want this person to change? Is it really because you care about them? Or is it because you get a rush out of pointing out everyone else’s shortcomings?
For the record, you have absolutely no right to tell your partner or children that their body displeases you. Especially if YOU are out of shape too. Clean up your own mess before you try to make them aware of theirs.
If you’re wanting a family member to get fit, keep in mind that your words will be remembered for decades, if not a lifetime. I have memories of loved ones commenting on my chubby legs and then talking about my weight behind my back… as a PRE-TEEN. Did that make me suddenly change my behavior? No. Their criticisms weren’t constructive, and (when it comes to fitness) they weren’t good role models.
Young people, especially, need someone to show them what it looks like to become healthy and strong in a sustainable way. Not someone to tally up their flaws. Luckily, I ended up having some great coaches and friends who showed me that lifting was cool, running out in the boonies was an adventure, and competition was a bonding experience.
So the best thing you can do to help someone get fit is to get there first, show them why you love it, then be available to offer guidance when they ask for it.
Prove through your own success that you know what you’re talking about, otherwise your “concern” for their weight won’t come off as intended. It’ll just come off as haughty criticism from an unknowledgeable source. – Dani Shugart
Tony Gentilcore – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
I don’t know about everyone else, but I often prefer a little separation of Church and State in my life when it comes to giving fitness advice to loved ones or close friends.
I’m willing to bet the following scenario rings familiar to many reading:
You: “Here you go, babe. Your brand spankin’ new training program.”
Girlfriend: “Ooooh, thank you. I can’t wait to get started!”
(Fast forward 7 seconds)
Girlfriend: “Deadlifts? Why do I need to do deadlifts?”
You: “You know, to help you get a little stronger, burn some more calories, and tone up your hamstrings and glutes.”
Girlfriend: “So, what, now all of a sudden I’m fat?”
You: No, uh, I mean, well, you asked for help, and…”
Ex-Girlfriend: “I HATE YOU. YOU’RE RUINING MY LIFE.”
Giving fitness advice to family, friends, and/or current significant others can be tricky. If you want to avoid a modern day Shakespearian travesty here’s my advice: Keep it about them.
You like to head straight to the squat rack on Monday. They’d rather jump into a shark’s mouth. It’s important to meet them where they’re at in terms of their interests, goals, ability level, and, of course, injury history. If someone is already a bit leery about this whole “lifting weights thing” I can tell you right now starting them off with back squats for AMRAP is absurdly stupid.
Squats are cool, but does it have to be with a barbell, and does it have to placed on their back? Why start someone with what’s arguably the most advanced variation of a lift?
Maybe a landmine squat would be a better fit and less intimidating? Or, maybe they expressed some interest in those cannonball looking thingamajiggies (kettlebells)… maybe you could start there and have him or her perform some goblet squats.
Show them success out of the gate, don’t make them feel stupid or inept at exercising, and offer them some choice in the matter. If you can do that, you’re putting the odds in your favor they’ll stick to it in the long-run. – Tony Gentilcore
Chris Albert – Trainer, Gym Founder, Marine Corps Vet
If you want to get someone to start working out, find out what’s deeply important to them. Get them to make that their reason for training. The key word here is DEEPLY.
The problem I see with the fitness industry is that it focuses on some pretty surface goals: perfect abs, bulging biceps, or the perfect onion booty. Even performance-related goals like a 500 pound squat or an increased vertical jump are pretty superficial when you get down to it.
The reality is that if you’re not a professional athlete or a fitness model, these are all “nice to haves” but they aren’t necessities. Things that are nice to have are the first things to get shelved when someone is having problems at work or in their personal lives.
Yes, these types of superficial goals have gotten plenty of people to flock to the gym. The ideal muscular male physique and the strong feminine look have become increasingly popular, and gyms I go to are packed every day with men and women deadlifting, squatting, and pressing their way to better and stronger physiques.
That’s awesome. But most of the people I see there are in their early 20s, pre-kids and pre-mortgage. I don’t think we’ll be seeing many of them there in a decade.
It’s easy to get someone to train when things are good, but the fact is that everyone faces difficult times in their lives. These are the times when I think training becomes even more important in helping a person to handle the rigors of life. That means that their reason for training needs to be attached to the very things they hold dear: family, career, and life.
If a person is very family oriented, get them to think about the fact that if they let their body go any further, they might not be around to see their kids get through college or get married. Ask them if they want to be able to lift their grandkids up or if they want to be able to walk their daughter down the aisle.
If a person is career driven, get them to realize that they’ll never reach their full potential if they aren’t healthy. If their body becomes unhealthy, so will their brain, and they won’t be in prime condition to do their job. Find out what it is that gets them out of bed every day and focus in on that.
Of course, it’s great to be strong, shredded, and to be able to look good in a swimsuit, but those of us in the industry sometimes forget what it’s like to be a person who’s main goals don’t entail getting first callout at a show or an elite total at a meet. And the fact is, even those of us who are driven by that iron bug need to re-evaluate what’s important to us when our competition days are over.
Make sure you’re also applying this to yourself. Understand what’s going to drive you to be your best even when glory isn’t on the line. – Chris Albert
Eric Bach – Strength Coach and Performance Expert
Have them start with short, frequent workouts every day, ideally for a month. This is key when taking on new clients who don’t share my unbridled enthusiasm for training. There are three reasons for this:
First, you can build any habit in 30 days if you do it daily. Second, the consistency turns the feeling of, “Ugh, I have to workout” into “working out is something I do every day, regardless of how I feel.” And third, it’s simple enough that they’re not averse to it.
I’d much rather have someone do something short for ten minutes each day, like a simple bodyweight training circuit, and not miss a day, than try to train five days per week with the perfect split. This leads to fizzling out when life gets busy.
In short, help them to start small and focus on frequency if you’re going to turn exercise into a habit. Once people gain energy and see results in the mirror, their motivation grows. This is why the “30 day” challenges work so well. They’re short enough to keep people engaged and see progress. The key is to use these as leverage and turn people on to more in-depth (and practical) training. – Eric Bach
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
I simply don’t care to convince someone to exercise if they don’t want it for themselves. If someone doesn’t possess a desire to train, then I won’t be the one trying to talk them into it.
Fitness is something a person must want on their own accord. Yes, I’ve tried bribing my daughters with food post-workout, but even that fizzled out rather quickly. Obviously you never want to call someone fat or unhealthy, and there’s more than one way to workout. Maybe the first baby-step is doing an activity they enjoy that gets their heart rate up: biking, swimming, walking, etc.
When Christina and I married 21 years ago she didn’t really lift weights. She said she was afraid of straining and making faces in front of me. We weight trained for the first time together on our honeymoon and she continues to train with me to this day.
Initially it helps to be super verbally supportive, especially if it’s a romantic interest. She’s not your gym bro, so don’t chastise her for not going to failure. Start slow and gradually build up volume. Utilize and work on gaining mastery of the basic compound movements like squats, bench, deadlifts and overhead presses. Often, the newbie wants to focus on abs, but they’re just window dressing. Lay the foundation with the major lifts before tinkering with accessory movements. – Mark Dugdale
Tom MacCormick – Personal Trainer, Online Coach
When someone needs to do something they don’t want to, try and create some enthusiasm.
When they look forward to going to the gym it stops being a chore and becomes a habit. And once training is part of their routine, results will take care of themselves.
So, how do you create this enthusiasm? Set them up for success and deliver it fast. The gym-averse will usually only give it a maximum of 4 weeks to see progress before they give up. So help them achieve progress within this timeframe.
Progress is the most effective form of motivation. Whenever you’ve achieved something you get a little feel-good factor and want to achieve more. This applies to a resistant gym newbie.
Imagine that your friend, relative, or partner has 50 pounds to lose and that’s their main motivation for going to the gym. Perhaps suggest they use a low-carb diet initially. This will cause them to lose weight rapidly. This weight is almost exclusively water weight (every gram of carbohydrate you ingest requires about 3g of water to store it). That doesn’t matter. Once they see the scale move downwards, perhaps for the first time in years, they’ll be motivated to continue down this path.
Their progress just boosted their motivation and the belief they can achieve their goal. This creates momentum.
Likewise, say a buddy of yours has been inspired by the CrossFit Games and wants to start training to get in shape, lose 20 pounds, and be more active with his kids. Taking him into the gym and having him max out on the snatch would just be frustrating for him. His lack of progress would cause him to give up and write off training as being for other people.
Instead pick a few easy-to-learn movements and focus on his progress there. Goblet squats and kettlebell swings for example. Then throw in some low skill conditioning like Prowler pushing so he can “enjoy” that metcon feeling he’s heard so much about. A few weeks later he’s using kettlebells twice the size, he’s pushing the Prowler further, and he thinks he’s Rich Froning 2.0.
Guess what? He’s in the gym for keeps.
Motivation and progress work synergistically in a positive upward spiral. As long as they progress, they stay motivated, if they stay motivated they keep showing up at the gym. In the end, going to the gym becomes a habit. And by then it’s established as part of their daily routine. Once you reach this stage you’re winning. – Tom MacCormick
Chris Colucci – T Nation Forum Director
If you’re “the gym guy” in the family and someone comes to you for advice to get started training, you first have to recognize whether or not you’re actually capable of giving advice, and then adjusting things as needed week to week or month to month.
It’s a painful bit of self-reflection, but if you don’t do it, you run the very real risk of being no better than those half-wit trainers who treat every client as mini-versions of themselves and ignore the fact that beginners are a whole different animal.
Sorry, bro, but your 70-year old mother who hasn’t exercised since Susan Powter was telling people to “Stop the Insanity” shouldn’t be trying conventional deadlifts with 135 her first day in the gym.
After you get through that necessary first step, and if you decide you’re up to the task, the most effective way to help a non-lifter become a not-non-lifter is to meet them where they are. Again, you can’t drop someone in the deep end of the lifting pool with front squats, repping out to muscle-burning failure, and dealing with DOMS.
If that person’s idea of a tough workout is getting all 10,000 steps in a day, you can’t start them off on a body part split where they do four chest exercises one day and six leg exercises the next. You push them to actually get every one of those 10,000 steps in a day, and the next day, and the next. Eventually you get them to finish 10,000 steps in 12 hours, then within 6 hours, and finally under one hour.
When they’re ready for weight training, lifting “only” a few days a week is perfectly fine for anyone looking to get started. It’s also perfectly fine for pretty much everyone else, but that’s a separate discussion. Managing soreness is also a huge issue, and proper workout nutrition is a simple and effective way to make sure they aren’t in agony days after picking up their first weights.
The key point is to remember that, contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants to be in the gym, so not everyone is going to love the type of challenging, big basic lifting we’re used to. This usually means making compromises without sacrificing results… which goes back to actually knowing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how to work around issues without sounding like a shut-up-and-lift goon.
If you’re not up to the task, be up front about it and let them know. Otherwise you’ll waste everyone’s time with pointless frustration and you can easily sour their attitude towards ever really getting into training. – Chris Colucci
Tom Morrison – Weightlifting Coach, Martial Artist, CrossFit Trainer
People will always do what they want to do, and if deep down they don’t care about their health, then there’s little you can do to change that.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but NEVER let someone else’s disregard for health and fitness get into your head. Attitudes are contagious. If you hang around with miserable saps long enough, your passion will eventually turn into a chore and you’ll begin to resent it yourself.
If someone’s standing beside you saying they don’t like something and can’t wait till it’s over and moaning constantly even in a jokey way, it’ll have a negative effect on you eventually.
So, first piece of advice is to try and help someone WANT to change, but if they don’t begin to want to quickly, cut your losses and be happy with the fact that you tried. Also keep the offer open if they ever decide they want to try again.
Secondly, make it relatable to them. Explain your own history and how it took years of little steps to get to where you’re at now. Make them feel proud even if they only cut down from having five cookies a day to two – because that’s still a step in the right direction. Think back to where you started and what you were doing back then and evaluate what the best plan of action would be to get them interested without overwhelming them.
If that’s doing a ten minute warm-up on a stationary bike then doing a few sets of 10 on the cable machines, so be it! You can gradually start introducing a bit of technique to them each week on harder, more beneficial exercises.
Lastly, explain why things are important in an exciting way. When I’m training younger people, they don’t care so much about shoulder health and why it’s important to have a vast variety of different angles in their programming to avoid muscle imbalances. But when I explain that if someone runs into them on the pitch when they’re in an awkward position, they will be able to clean them out because their shoulders are strong in different positions… then all of a sudden they like bear crawls and plyometric push-ups.
Always remember who you’re talking to and be relatable. Talk about the small steps that will gradually make them a badass. No one wants to know how far they have to go, so make every step exciting and accessible. – Tom Morrison