Home Blog Emotional Detachment for Training Success

Emotional Detachment for Training Success

Written on April 29, 2014 at 3:38 am, by Eric Cressey

About eight years ago, I had a defining moment in my career during a training session. Twice a week, I would train two guys who had been wildly successful in their careers – to the point that they’d both been able to retire in their early 40s. It was an absolute blast to work with them, as they were both huge sports fans and would constantly bust one another’s chops during training sessions. One day, one of them finished up his set of Prowler pushes, and remained “slumped” over the Prowler for 20 seconds or so, working to catch his breath.


Once he regained it, he looked up at me and said, “You know, Eric, I’m really just doing this so that I can drink beer and eat pizza during Patriots games and not feel guilty.”

It was a big eye opener for me to realize that my fitness goals for him were a lot loftier than his goals for himself. Sure, we trained in a safe and effective manner and he got great results, but was I really doing all I could do to make exercise actually seem fun for him?

I think we take for granted how much we, as fitness professionals, love to train. We convince ourselves that clients don’t mind eating out of Tupperware every two hours. And, we assume that heavy deadlifts get these clients so excited that they have erections lasting more than four hours. Sorry, but most people just don’t look forward to exercise – or enjoy it during the sessions – as much as us fitness lunatics do.

Here is where we learn one of the most important lessons in terms of improving client adherence, retention, and long-term success:

   You need to be emotionally attached to your clients,
        but emotionally detached from a training style.

With respect to the former point, you should go out of your way to make clients know that you genuinely care about them and want to help them get to where they need to be. They really should be like extended members of your family. Heck, there have been times in my life when I’ve spent more hours with certain clients in a given week than I have with my own wife! Don’t neglect the importance of being a friend before you become a coach or trainer.


On the other hand, though, you must emotionally detach yourself from a training system. We know that in our own training, we sometimes have to do things we don't enjoy in order to make progress; we have to emotionally detach ourselves from the exercises we enjoy. This also applies with how we manage clients, but in the opposite direction.

In other words, just because you love Powerlifting doesn’t mean a client will always want to lift heavy. Just because you enjoy broccoli doesn’t mean that a client won’t abhor the stench of it. Just because you think it’d be cool to drop $10,000 on a souped-up leg press doesn’t mean that it’ll over any benefit whatsoever for your clients. And, just because you feel like you look good in a tight-fitting sleeveless shirt doesn’t mean that potential clients won’t joke with each other than you look like a raging, self-consumed tool. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

Candidly, I think this is one reason why Crossfit has gained popularity so fast. Effectively, it allows people to “ride several horses with one saddle” with their training. If there is one part of training (e.g., heavy lifting) that they don’t like, there is something else (e.g., metabolic conditioning, gymnastics movements, Olympic lifts) that might get them fired up. Add in great camaraderie – which makes clients feel the emotional attachment to people and not just a system – and you’ve got a recipe for a successful training business.

At the end of the day, what's the takehome message?  Be a good person, and be open-minded to new ways to evaluate, program, and coach. If you're looking for a tremendous resource to help you in this regard, I'd highly recommend Elite Training Systems, a collaborative product from Mike Robertson, Wil Fleming, Tyler English, Dave Schmitz, Steve Long, and Jared Woolever. This product delves into how to write effective strength and conditioning programs, as well has how to run the business side of things. I like it so much that I contributed several bonus videos of my own.  It's on sale at a great introductory price; check it out HERE.


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11 Responses to “Emotional Detachment for Training Success”

  1. Jim Simmons Says:

    Thanks for the email

  2. Cait Lynch Says:

    Hi Eric~

    I love “ride several horses with one saddle,” mostly because I totally get what you’re saying and deep down, because I am a lifelong equestrian and horse trainer turned fitness pro.

    One of the things I really work on is being the sherpa who is like the great waitress who is friendly but not too familiar: I have intimate exchanges with my clients about their health and lives but I don’t cross boundaries that make them feel bare naked when it comes down to doing the work of training.

    Sometimes, in training AND in life–we just have to focus on the end; we just need to do the work! Stop complaining, find some compassion for ourselves and some glimmer of fun and press on…

    Great post!

  3. Chris Says:

    “And, we assume that heavy deadlifts get these clients so excited that they have erections lasting more than four hours.”

    And with that, I am wiping saliva off the monitor. 🙂

  4. Erika Wood Says:

    Well said.

  5. Kate Whetsel Says:

    The timing of this post was perfect. I’ve been very attached to certain training philosophies, but some clients have seemed less enthusiastic. It’s been a bit of an internal tug-of-war between giving clients what they seem to need vs. what they want. I’m shooting for ‘a little of each’ to meet both their wants and needs lately, but it’s tricky!

  6. Caitlin Burke Says:

    I joke that I have a special advantage when I help people problem-solve around nutrition and exercise, because my own preferences for food and workouts are so bizarre that no one else would want them and no sane trainer would prescribe them. 🙂

    I think that ability to say “who cares what I like? the goal here is to get this person from their point A to their (not my!) desired point B” is absolutely bedrock core mandatory if you want to genuinely help another person, but the ability to implement it is complicated by social expectations not just of the trainer but of the client who may be struggling with what they really want vs what they think they ought to want.

    A person may come to a trainer because they do in fact want to “train” (eg, explicit performance goal), but many really just need accountability – they want to hit health goals and say yes to food they like, but they don’t really get fired up about *doing* exercise, and maybe never will. They might be attracted to a performance-oriented trainer because it makes them feel closer to the professional sports they enjoy watching, and unfortunately they may then even want to *conceal* how nonlofty their true goals are.

    Your astonished realization could be just as much to the reality that showing up in the first place can be driven by factors that seem mutually exclusive at a glance. If you just want to eat guilt-free, you can buy a rowing machine and a Netflix account and torch calories, with some decent resistance built in, and spend the bare minimum of minutes at it. You don’t need a trainer for that. The people who need trainers most may be the ones who don’t, ultimately, want to “train,” but who are excited by a vicarious connection to the world in which training is necessary.

  7. J.B. Says:

    I think this is one of the biggest holes in most people’s assessment process. Too many trainers/coaches don’t ask enough questions:
    Why are we here?
    What is your best case scenario for our time together?
    Give me some measurable things you’ve always wanted to be able to do in the gym?

    Assessment should have two parts: where are you? Where do you want to go? one without the other is pretty useless.

  8. Antwan Harris Says:

    I absolutely agree being that its very easy to become attached to one training style or philosophy!!! Solid Read Boss

  9. dylan Says:

    your righting and work have made me a better trainer

  10. daniel Says:

    One of the best articles I have read in a while.

    Not that I don’t love the technical stuff you put out, but this is a great reminder to me, and one of the major things I think a lot of folks forget about.

    You read all the time or hear people saying “my job is to give people what they need, not what they want”

    Well, yes, but, most often what they NEED is a training program that will keep them engaged and motivated, because that is where short And long term success lies, not necessarily more deadlifts or prowler sprints.

  11. Rodney Says:

    Love this article, especially the line about erections! Laughed myself silly. I’m a newbie to your site but it’s now bookmarked a favorite. I appreciate access to methods based on sports science, not junk. Also, I appreciated the link to Dana’s yoga site. Thanks.

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