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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.”


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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  1. 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.”

  2. 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 pressure–in a bad way.

    It turns out the instructor on the DVD was wonderful:
    1) Teaching form
    2) Teaching alternate methods of achieving the same exercise if you have problem areas (shoulders, hips, whatever).
    3) Explaining WHY correct form prevents any experience of pain and which kind of pain (and high blood pressure danger) comes from doing different incorrect form techniques.
    4) Then actually doing the exercise.”

    Now, because my family is very pain averse, they listened. They thought the changes were strange at first, but immediately noticed that (for ab exercises) they no longer felt back, neck, nor oblique muscle pain.

    So, as many people (especially those of a certain age) are starting to experience some pain and joint stiffness (and quite possibly some high blood pressure), I would ask this gentleman to try some of these “new” forms for a couple of weeks and let me know if they actually worked on his abs. (I would not mention pain, as many folks believe if there is no pain, there is no gain.) Then, go back in two weeks and ask if the exercises seem to be an okay way to proceed. (Appeal to his ego, as the exercise “specialist” with years of experience.) My guess is, after a couple of weeks, his pain level will go down and he might find the “new” techniques more comfortable. If so, hopefully he will adapt them as “his own idea” and stick with them. You might even have him demonstrate to the young instructor this revolutionary new way to do ab exercises. Stroke his ego. Appeal to his vast experience.

    Manipulative? Yes.

    A technique that may work with a man my age? Yes.

    Would this work with a woman? No. (With an older woman, I would discuss my high blood pressure and show her how my doctor has me doing the exercise to prevent health problems. That would probably work immediately, as many women my age are quite health conscious and are likely to make the change even if they don’t have high blood pressure.)

  3. 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 better results for you. Maybe give it a try and see what you think.”

  4. 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 doing right (even if the only thing you can compliment is their choice of footwear) is another way to help build rapport. Asking permission to share info lowers resistance.

  5. 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 stranger who came over to criticize.

    Also, don’t forget that this person’s been doing it wrong for a while. Likely, if you correct them, it’ll be harder for them to do. And who wants to do more work? Or realize they’re not as good as they thought they were?

  6. 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 guarantee you’ll be feeling it the next day.” If it’s a regular at the gym you can follow up and call them a pussy if they haven’t tried it yet.

  7. 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 them by their health club.

    With my 10+ years of experience I can give you insight into this mindset. Usually the ones who are being corrected have been “walking the walk” for years and those who try to correct them usually look like they haven’t exercised a day in their life.

    I’ve stopped any type of correction because the most important thing I’ve learned is that there is a lagging knowledge curve for exercises and form that trickles down, sometimes overlapping what is seen as good or correct with something that was seen as bad years ago. You’ve got the powerlifters and bodybuilders perfecting things that you’ll see in Men’s Health in 2-3 years. From Men’s Health it trickles into women’s health magazines in 1-2 years and finally a few years later you see it on Dr. Oz or one of those everyman shows.

    I think one of the best techniques may be to ask if they will let you record an exercise they are performing for research you are conducting. Generally curiosity will get the better of someone and if you don’t volunteer the recording they’ll want to see anyway. With the wealth of information available, most people know what exercises should look like but they don’t know what they look like doing them. Being shown how they are performing it may actually alter the way they perform their next set or perform the exercise completely as they remember problems they saw in the video.

    And you don’t even have to say anything!

  8. 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 you avoid putting them on the defensive:

    “Wow! Look at that (guy’s girl’s) abs! I started using their method and it has really been working. It cut 10 minutes out of my routine, and I had to tighten my belt one more notch.”

  9. 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 already… something along the lines of “Hey, nice form! You look like someone like me who really cares about this stuff, so I’ll let you in on a cool secret I found out about recently. So, I heard about this new technique someone discovered. I’ve been trying it for the past few weeks, and it’s gotten me ripped faster than anything I’ve ever tried before! It’s very similar to what you’re doing, with just one small change. [Show new technique]”

  10. 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 very hard to teach, when he could focus that energy on people who are actually wiling to learn, like a nerdy guy or a middle aged woman who know nothing about fitness (..and have a “beginners mind..).

    Yes, you do have to know psychology of behavioral change well if you’re working as a trainer, but if people think that they know everything already, there’s no point in teaching them, unless you have a clear personal responsibility to do so (..which is unlikely, because that would mean that they pay you to teach them personally or come into your class, which change the whole dynamics..).