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Be the Expert: How would you persuade this guy to change his workout habit?

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I was at the gym the other day and saw this guy who was doing an ab workout all wrong. I caught eyes with a trainer, who shook his head. We both smiled.

So we started talking and I asked him if he ever corrects people that are doing exercises wrong. He tells me,

“Yeah, I actually used to go up to people and say, ‘Can I show you a better way to do that?’ But these dudes got REALLY mad…especially the ones from Jersey. And especially guys who had been working out a long time.”

I started cracking up. He said, “One guy looked me up and down and said, how old are you? 24? I have a SUIT older than you.”

HAHA.

Aside from an NYC bar or a new-mother meetup, there is almost no place more fascinating to study applied psychology than a gym: We claim we want to lose weight and dream about getting a 6-pack…but we rarely work out. Some of us actually do go to the gym, but after 12 months of working out, we look the same…yet if someone suggests getting a trainer, we say, “That’s way too expensive!” Still others jump from fad diet to fad diet.

Be The Expert
Use what you’ve learned on this site about psychology to answer these questions:

1. It’s natural to feel angry if someone tries to correct you. But why are guys who’ve been working out for a long time especially angry if someone tries to help them correct their form? What is going on here?

2. If you were recommending what this trainer SHOULD say to actually change the other guy’s form, what would it be? Script it out in the comments.

Hint: This has nothing to do with the gym. It has everything to do with influencing others’ behavior by understanding their barriers and the context of persuasion.

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48 Comments on "Be the Expert: How would you persuade this guy to change his workout habit?"

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Jess
Jess
4 years 2 months ago

1. It undermines their sense of “I’ve been doing this for X amount of time, therefore I must know what I’m doing” and that’s probably pretty embarrassing.

2. “I see you’re doing such and such exercise. I found that I got way better results doing (either) a) a different exercise or b) by changing this one thing about what you’re doing, and I also didn’t hurt myself.”

Susan
Susan
4 years 2 months ago
Okay, this is something I actually addressed with both my kids and my husband (mid-50s) when they were taking Tae Kwon Do lessons from a young (20s) guy who had them doing ab exercises with bad old techniques. I did not approach the teacher, but used the following script for my family: “I purchased DVDs from a health magazine to help me with some strength building exercises. I chose their DVDs because I had trouble with pain after my workouts–sometimes pain in places I hadn’t even worked. And the doctor warned me that some exercises can affect my high blood… Read more »
Austin
Austin
4 years 2 months ago
1. They’ve committed a lot of time to what they’re doing and no one wants to feel like they’ve been wasting years of their life. 2. You could start out by saying “Hi, I’ve been researching some methods of doing [this exercise]. Would you mind showing me your technique and explaining how it works?” This way he has the choice to participate if he wants to, and rather than immediately take offence, he may be somewhat flattered that you asked. Then as he continues, you could say, “Hmm, that’s really interesting. From what I’ve found, doing [x] might produce slightly… Read more »
Carl
Carl
4 years 2 months ago
1.) Ditto to previous comments about wasting time. I think it’s also a preconceived notion of what kind of person gets help from a personal trainer. “They must be a weak person who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” While forgetting that professional athletes, movie stars and supermodels almost exclusively work out with trainers (making a generalization there…I know). 2.) I think step one is to build a relationship with the person. Strike up a conversation about something completely unrelated to the exercise. Once you’ve built a little rapport, then ask if you can offer a little feedback. Compliment anything they’re… Read more »
Dan
Dan
4 years 2 months ago
1. It affects their pride. Add that to the fact that people hate change. You’ve basically made them self-conscious about working out (which they either were already and you made them more so, or they weren’t and it was a routine thing… being self-conscious is never fun). 2. Probably not how you would do it, but I would advise the trainer to be positive and compliment the person first. Puff up their self-esteem. Then, spin it positive by saying, “Hey man, I know of a more effective way to do that. Want me to show you?” Otherwise, you’re just a… Read more »
John B
John B
4 years 2 months ago
1. You’re essentially telling them that what they’ve been doing for years is wrong. People don’t like to hear that they’ve been wasting their time doing something incorrectly. In their minds they do what they do because it’s the best way and because it works. Telling them otherwise is a slap in the face. 2. I would avoid suggesting that what they’ve been doing is wrong. Instead appeal to their pride by suggesting that there is a harder way to do that exercise. I would say something along the lines of, “try doing this exercise, it’s super tough and I… Read more »
Chris S
Chris S
4 years 2 months ago
The idea of a personal trainer to those who only have health clubs around is hard to swallow when you watch the guys staring at their watches when working with their clients with absolutely no interest in what is going on. I’ve been lifting for 10+ years, but if you give me an accomplished trainer who can lay out not only what to do but why I should do it then I’m more likely to follow their advice. A lot of trainers can never answer the “why” of the exercise as they pick and pull from a list given to… Read more »
Drew
Drew
4 years 2 months ago
Directly suggesting that someone should change what they are doing can be percieved as an attack. It can invalidate not only what they are doing, but the time and energy spent doing it for the last few years. You are not only “attacking” their form, but the investment they have made in doing it that way. If I were to approach this, timing would be key. Wait until somebody that is in great shape and has great form starts to do the same or similar enough excersize. Then make a comment. Don’t even address what they are doing directly so… Read more »
Chris
Chris
4 years 2 months ago
1) People above seem to have a good grasp on this. It’s called “Cognitive Dissonance”: people need to find some way of reconciling conflicting information. The longest-standing belief tends to win. In this case, the idea that there’s a better way to do the exercise conflicts (is “dissonant”) with their belief that they are a reasonable person who knows what they’re doing. 2) In order for this to be successful, you need to present it in a way where the two ideas agree with each other, instead of conflicting. Several people above have come up with good ideas for this… Read more »
Agota
Agota
4 years 2 months ago
1. I think everyone else answered this question already. 2. I see it from a bit different perspective: what’s the point to try to change the behavior of someone who clearly isn’t open minded (and humble) enough to learn? I know the question was about actually changing the behavior, but really, why bother trying to explain stuff to people who think that they’re superior to you and know better? In this scenario the trainer isn’t held responsible for the results that people get in the gym, so it’s not worthy for him to bother and waste energy on someone who’s… Read more »
Frank T.
Frank T.
4 years 2 months ago
1) They are being reactive to a change of their knowledge, basically cognitive dissonance with the twist that they would have acknowledge that they might have been damaging themselves before. Also it would cast doubt on their own form. 2) I wouldn’t tell him to change anything. No coaching without asking, no training without asking. These guys are lost causes. You can either spend your time arguing with them or you can spend the time acquiring other people who will willingly listen. You can recruit the other guys once they are throwing their backs out, hurt their backs with roundback… Read more »
Agota
Agota
4 years 2 months ago

Exactly.

I see those of us who actually have an experience of coaching people agree on this topic.. 😀

Ricardo
Ricardo
4 years 2 months ago
I see people have lengthy and thorough scripts above so I will make mine short. The trainer should mention not the ‘how’ but rather the ‘why’. Instead of talking about how the person is doing the exercise wrong, the trainer should explain why the muscle is trained. “Building this muscle will allow you to do X, Y, and Z with more/less effort.” Then the trainer should talk about the ‘how’ and explain the correct method of exercise. If I have a clear understanding of why something is done or needs to be done (using X mathematical equation, using Y concrete… Read more »
Brent
Brent
4 years 2 months ago

Probably all the testosterone coursing through these men. It makes them arrogant.

peachfront
4 years 2 months ago

Is it a trick question? I have no clue what to say to someone doing a workout exercise wrong, probably because I have no clue why I would care that someone was doing their workout exercise wrong. My mom would probably say that the trainer “SHOULD” mind his own business. I’m inclined to think she’s right.

Dani
Dani
4 years 2 months ago

This is my favorite answer EVER.

Jackie
Jackie
4 years 2 months ago

I never knew how to use some of the machines properly at the gym until I watched others dominate them. You may not get through to them with words, but a guy they want to look like doing a move in a way they haven’t tried resonates. So mosey on over to the area of the gym he’s at, work out with proper form where he can get a good view. If he digs your build and wants it, he’ll mimic you.

Dominik
Dominik
4 years 2 months ago

1. Cognitive Dissonance + reactance

2. Lead them to change their own conclusions. Recommend a high quality source + highlighten the potential gains for them. Focus on the potential benefits and show some hard data (someone that is even stronger/whatever they care about + doing it right).
“Hey, I found XXX (e.g. Starting Strength) and thought you might like/benefit from it.” But the best course is just ignoring them. Let them come to you.

Jeff
4 years 2 months ago

Limbic brain hijack. The approach is a perceived by the more creature level brain as a threat to status. The 24 year old comment is especially consistent with this feeling.

The appropriate approach is a) build rapport subsequently gaining trust and once trust is established b) presenting new information in a non threatening way. Perhaps suggesting what some other dude was doing that you found interesting –> more of an interesting discovery versus you knowing the answer. This doesn’t create a creature level threat and presents the ideas in a way where they maintain autonomy over their choices.

Nick
Nick
4 years 2 months ago
1) If a guy is clearly more muscular than you, and you believe his form is improper, it may just be the case that he knows more than you do. I’ve been lifting seriously for 8 years and in the first few years, I used to look at guys who were bigger than me using weird form. I’d think that they’re idiots and I should correct them. The reality is that they’re just using form that is unfamiliar to you, but has been honed through years of experience and success. This of course doesn’t apply to everyone, some people really… Read more »
Amy
4 years 2 months ago
Haha! As a trainer, I know EXACTLY where that other trainer is coming from. I used to go up to people and try to correct them as well. Being a smiley, little Asian girl, I didn’t get yelled at, but I don’t feel like they really listened to me either. For your first question, I think a lot of people don’t want to be questioned or corrected because they don’t want to face the fact that they’ve either wasted their time doing things incorrectly or acknowledge that this person knows more than them. Also, working out already puts us in… Read more »
Brian
Brian
4 years 2 months ago
I was at the cafeteria the other day and saw this young kid who was buying his 6 dollar latte all wrong. I caught eyes with a coworker, who shook his head. We both smiled. So we started talking and I asked him if he ever corrects people that overspend on luxuries they could make themselves for much cheaper. He tells me, “Yeah, I actually used to go up to people and say, ‘Can I show you a cheaper way to do that?’ But these dudes got REALLY mad…especially the ones from I Will Teach You To Be Rich. And… Read more »
Xenocles
Xenocles
4 years 2 months ago
There’s a Zen parable about a very experienced student who approaches a master to learn under him. The master prepares tea for both of them, and student begins talking about how much he already knows. In the meantime the master starts pouring tea into the student’s cup. He fills it past overflowing, and when the student notices he jumps up and yells “What are you doing? The cup is full; you can’t get any more tea in there!” To which the master replies: “Just like your mind.” You can’t teach those who think they have nothing to learn. Attempting to… Read more »
Chris
Chris
4 years 2 months ago
1. The psychology at play is a combination of loss-aversion and sunk costs. The time and effort put into past training was a cost of time and effort. It is the same psychology of continuing to hold stocks that have tanked in the hopes that they will rebound and the loss won’t be “locked in”. 2. I would try to sell the new form as a new product. Don’t focus on the poor form of the sit up. Say something to the effect of, “Hey, I just learned this new technique for doing sit ups. It has been doing wonders… Read more »
Ed
Ed
4 years 2 months ago
+1 to what Nick @#18 said. Not everyone works out the same way, nor should they. I would add that people have different goals at the gym, which means they’re going to be on different programs. You may think someone’s lifting too fast (i.e. jerking the weight up), but maybe they’re doing a workout oriented towards building explosive power (i.e. strength + speed). Or you may think someone is lifting too slow and/or can’t get the weight up, but they’re really doing a workout that builds stamina. Bottom line, you may have good intentions when you try to correct someone,… Read more »
Ed
Ed
4 years 2 months ago
To answer the question posed by Ramit, I would ask the person why they’re doing the exercise the way they’re doing it**. If there’s a reason for what they’re doing (i.e. they’re doing squats with the bar in front of them because it forces them to keep proper form), then hey, I just learned something. But if they actually *don’t* know what to do, they might be more open to suggestions on how to improve their technique. ** e.g. Hi. Can I ask you something? I noticed you’re doing squats with the bar in front. Is there a reason you… Read more »
steve
steve
4 years 2 months ago
1. The psychology behind the anger: It’s unsolicited advice. Nobody wants to be told what to do, especially by some gym-rat-rando, and even moreso after a hard day of people pleasing at the office. That’s why they’re mad. This older guy, who’s out of shape, is out of shape because he’s neglected himself. If he wanted to know how to do it right, he would have learned by now. (This is coming from an in-shape 43 year old gym regular). 2. If I were recommending what this trainer SHOULD say to actually change the other guy’s form, what would it… Read more »
Dani
Dani
4 years 2 months ago
That! Unsolicited advice. When you give somebody unsolicited advice, it comes off as telling them “U R DOIN IT RONG” – out of nowhere, with no pre-existing relationship? Being right doesn’t excuse being rude. For that matter, being rude means people won’t listen to you when you’re right. We’re territorial, us humans. Most of us spend enough time having to defend our territories without having total strangers come up and critique stuff. (This is also a big part of why it’s so difficult to successfully step in when parents are being dicks to their kids in public.) It leads into… Read more »
Anthony Williams
Anthony Williams
4 years 2 months ago
1. People really don’t like being corrected. Especially if (a) it’s by someone they don’t know, and (b) they’ve been doing the thing-being-corrected for a long time. If they accept that the person is right then it’s embarrassing, and frustrating, and they might feel silly or cross with themselves. There’s resentment that this person they didn’t know felt able to criticise them. There’s also the self-consciousness that this other person has been watching them work out, which can be uncomfortable. Put all this together, and it can make someone angry. 2. Direct confrontation won’t work. You need to talk to… Read more »
Kristin
4 years 2 months ago

This is closest to what I was thinking…open with a question and make it a give and take conversation, asking for tips, then advice on what you are showing them…and/or after striking up conversation then invite to the next section of the workout legs/cardio etc.

Stefan
4 years 2 months ago
I’ve been a personal trainer for about 5 years now. I don’t normally correct people’s form specifically for the reason that was described in the article. However, if you were compelled to help the guy out, this is how I do it: Me: You’re working pretty hard dude! *Force my way onto the machine* You ever try to do it this way? (I then go on to explain the proper biomechanics of the body while I’m demonstrating the exercise and throw in a smart-name of a muscle such as ‘seratus anterior.’) Guy doing everything wrong (usually says): Thanks man, I’ll… Read more »
skabetti
skabetti
4 years 2 months ago

It isn’t my business to correct someone. What am I, a crusader-vigilante-do-gooder? I’m no expert, even if I know a better way to do something. If people resent me for interfering, they SHOULD.

Strom
Strom
4 years 2 months ago

I like it when the puffy looking 140 lb personal trainer glances over at the bro doing curls in the squat rack and they share a knowing look of disdain at the d-bag doing his bosu ball front raises totally wrong. If a guy is willing to spend most of a whole weekend getting certified as a trainer, you pretty much owe him your undivided attention any time he wants to give you unsolicited advice. That’s just common sense.

John
John
4 years 2 months ago

Give the instructions to someone else nearby where the first guy can overhear. Overrides his defensiveness.

K00kyKelly
4 years 2 months ago
The only way I have been successful in situations like this is to start with: Hey are you experiencing X problem? In the bad form example – Hey man do you get this weird side pain [points to self] the morning after a workout? Guy: Yeah, so? (If you mention a super specific problem people will get excited and instantly interested. They want this problem to go away.) Trainer: I’ve noticed with a lot of my clients that if they modify to [demonstrate move] they don’t have that issue anymore. This approach requires that you have enough of an understanding… Read more »
Dani
Dani
4 years 2 months ago

Of course they would, because they would already have given you the buy-in.

Lucy Ra
4 years 2 months ago
1. It’s natural to feel angry if someone tries to correct you. But why are guys who’ve been working out for a long time especially angry if someone tries to help them correct their form? What is going on here? People’s brain is programmed to like the familiar. That’s why we stick to the same old same – it’s a safe zone, a survival instinct. When you want to change your behavior you really got to consciously put effort to change your act. Not easy. Of course these men are angry – they are not achieving the results they want… Read more »
Annika
4 years 2 months ago
As a personal trainer with a natural approach to exercise and nutrition, I’ve had heaps of experience trying to confront people that are doing it “all wrong” So in answer to 1: Doing an exercise ‘wrong’ is sunk costs, they’re reluctant to let go of their way of doing it because they’ve been doing it for years. Then they also feel attacked. Telling them they’re ‘doing it wrong’ is received by the brain as ‘you’re wrong’, which gets interpreted as ‘you’re ignorant, stupid, a failure’. Noone likes getting told they don’t know what they’re doing, especially by someone they don’t… Read more »
Nidz
Nidz
4 years 2 months ago
1. I don’t know, but if I was to rationalize it, I’d think it’s because one does not want to feel stupid/wrong/etc. 2. A great way to appeal to somebody’s herd mentality to get them to do something the right way is to say, “Hey, that’s an interesting way of doing the exercise. Did you know 95% (or some other high percentage) of people work the same muscles by doing the exercise this way…?” and then proceed to demonstrate. Research has shown that if everybody is doing it, the mind seems to adjust its norm and seeks out membership. There’s… Read more »
Jay
4 years 1 month ago

I loved the comment what are you 24 I have a suit older than you lol. Typical dumb comment from an older guy but I agree people are hilarious they think they are Zeus at the gym but can’t even lift their own body weight on a bench press which is very bad.lol.

If you can’t do this no offense whoever reads this comment but you need to workout a bit harder. People just need to get way more motivated and stick to a routine that works for them if you do not have one, find one!

Frank
4 years 1 month ago
Not sure if I was supposed to read other peoples’ responses first, but I didn’t. So maybe this is repetitive. Meh. 1.) Not sure if cognitive dissonance is the term to use for this… (but I’m taught “naming is not explaining”)… so I’d say if it *is* true that ab-workout-guy has been doing it wrong, being open to the better method implies he’s been doing it wrong his whole life. The idea of cognitive dissonance says that when our actions and thoughts don’t line up (are dissonant), instead of fixing it by changing our actions/decisions (and admitting we’re wrong), we’d… Read more »
Jaime
Jaime
4 years 1 month ago
2) either: dont bother, focus on people who at least ask or want to change (IWTYTBR website stated ethos). or: run a one-off (FREE) abs workshop, tell the guy either, you want a few people in there who look like they know what they are doing, or, you want someone experienced in there to let you know if you are pushing people too hard to quickly. tell him you want his feedback after the class on the exercises demonstrated during this class and whether he thinks its a good idea for the gym to keep running them. alternatively, try not… Read more »
David Hamilton | Everlution
4 years 1 month ago
Very engaging topic Ramit. I like the thought challenge here! 1) I think it is because people are already oversensitive about their bodies, especially at the gym. They don’t know any better, and either are frustrated with their lack of results, or think it’s good enough for them. Either way it’s an ego think, and someone that comes along and challenges what they belief, in a direct and non-persuasive manner makes all the defenses go up. 2) I somehow have a feeling you might be talking about Cialdini’s principle of influence, since you’re a psychology buff. The trainer should engage… Read more »
Prathap
Prathap
4 years 1 month ago
1) I believe it is result of knowing and doing/understanding. The guy in the gym might have read numerous books, watched DVDs, hit numerous years in gym, etc and have lot of knowledge about that workout. Though he is doing it all wrong, for him he is doing it right and it is supported by his own expert knowledge. so, when you tell him wrong, you are actually questioning his expertise in that subject and he is naturally pissed off 2) The approach to change would be to question his expertise like a student eager to learn. This will help… Read more »
Dustin | Fit Marriage
4 years 1 month ago
1) It’s a classic ego thing – no one wants to be corrected at something they’ve been doing the “right way” for a while. And in the gym, you feel particularly vulnerable and defensive because it’s public and you’re doing some physical. 2) I think the key is to start on their level. Something like, “Hey man, I’m a big fan of crunches. The sucky thing is I hurt myself last year doing them, and it kept me out of the gym for a while. I had a trainer show me how to do them a little differently, and it’s… Read more »
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[…] June 27, 2012 · 44 comments […]

Susan
Susan
4 years 1 month ago
Okay, having just read Tim Ferris “The 4 Hour Body,” I’d copy the few pages about building abs (not the part about crunches not working), and ask the gentleman in question if he’d help me do the exercises correctly. (I’d only do this after mastering the exercises myself for a few weeks.) If he agrees to, I’d explain how they are supposed to tone my abs very quickly and I was anxious to try them since crunches didn’t seem to work for me. Afterwards (assuming he agreed to help me), I’d ask if he’d like a copy and hand him… Read more »
Dana Twight
4 years 1 month ago
To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the exercise. Ramit’s question asked how to change someone’s workout routine. Most of these replies didn’t involve asking the gentleman involved any questions, unless the stranger had offered some unsolicited information first. I would suggest building rapport in some way that didn’t involve technique; then *asking the person why they were at the gym* in the first place. What are they trying to accomplish? While the comments about being non-threatening are accurate, I don’t seem them as being as relevant here. What have their goals been? Are they successful? One can then gauge… Read more »
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