How do you get clients through their training plateaus?

Article by:  Maria Faires, RD
Published:  March 2014, IDEA Fitness Journal
Owner, Active Nutrition Fitness and Nutrition Consulting, Sammamish,  WA

IDEA is the world's leading organization of fitness professionals. IDEA's publication IDEA Fitness Journal contacted me and asked me to describe how I get clients through a training plateau.

PUBLISHED ANSWER: I am a registered dietitian and a personal trainer who specializes in weight loss management. I incorporate lifestyle changes and behavior modification, nutrition and fitness. Here’s the process I go through when a client hits a plateau.

Rather than simply concluding that the fix lies with the client’s workout or nutrition regimen, experience tells me there’s more than meets the eye. I delve deeper into the root of the problem.

If a client has stopped losing weight, I assess her adherence to her program. Is she still following the program as attentively as she did in the beginning? Sometimes after some initial weight loss, clients are not as diligent as they were at first. A typical pattern I see is that cardio isn’t performed as often or as long; portion size starts to slowly creep up; treats make their way back into diets; and meals aren’t logged anymore or aren’t planned as attentively.

To assess if a client is following her program, I ask a few key questions:

  • Are you following the meal plan that I have created for you? (I am a dietitian and can create specific meal plans.)
  • Are you planning your meals in advance?
  • Are you measuring your food and logging your food and beverage intake?
  • How many minutes of cardio have you done this week? What type, and what was your heart rate range?
  • Did you get two weight training workouts in this week?
  • Did you get at least 7 hours of restful sleep?

Remember that making changes is difficult and that falling back into unproductive ruts is easy. Listen carefully for indications that the client is facing challenges incorporating the new changes. Most often, she just needs a few suggestions on how to incorporate new behaviors into a daily routine. Ask what challenges she is having and, together, come up with some ideas to overcome them.

You may, however, face a situation where your suggestions aren’t met with a positive response. Have you ever heard a client say things like “I know I need to exercise, but I hate it” or “I know I need to stay away from treats, but it’s just so hard.” These statements signal conflicting beliefs, desires and behaviors. The client knows he “should” make some changes but can’t seem to. If a client is ambivalent, he is not going to be moved to make changes if your response is simply to give more suggestions. This client may not be ready to make any big changes. Take a step back at this point and assess his readiness to change.

You may want to consider getting trained in motivational interviewing, a method often used by health coaches that helps facilitate motivation within a client. If you don’t feel skilled and you think your client may benefit from help exploring his ambivalence, you may want to ask if he feels that talking to a psychologist might help him explore and resolve ambivalence.

Of course, it is certainly possible that a medical issue exists that has created a plateau. Such issues may include hormonal changes, Cushing syndrome, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary syndrome, or insulin resistance, and a visit to the doctor may be justified.

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