4mat communication

How to communicate with your clients

Today I wanted to talk about communication and how the correct form of communication between trainer and trainee can massively enhance the experience or results for both parties. Following on from my last blog where I went into a lot of detail about how my training is structured and the theory behind it, it occurred to me that on paper and in practice initially, it all appeared like some sort of ‘black magic’ as to what, when and how we did something. It wasn’t until Aiden explained the ‘WHY’ of it that I really got it and all of a sudden being able to structure a workout became incredibly simple.

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When I first started working with Aiden, I had no idea about fitness really let’s be honest, sure I knew enough to go around a gym and do 3 or so sets on 4-5 exercises, then next time do 3 or so sets on 4-5 different exercises,  or bust my butt on a stepper. But I was looking for more structure and although I was looking up workouts on fitness sites, because I didn’t understand what these stock workouts were trying to achieve, I got horribly confused and overwhelmed, not knowing which one was the best to do, to start with or progress to and as a result didn’t do any of them!

This is why working with a personal trainer became such a revelation. Initially I was just relieved to have someone else do the thinking for me, I really needed that as that was the point when my life was in complete turmoil, but fairly soon I got over the overwhelm and my natural curiosity reasserted itself…


And with that came the ‘why?’


Why are we doing this workout?

Why are we doing this exercise instead of that one?

Why are we starting with this exercise this week when we started with that one last week?

Why are we doing this exercise immediately after that one?

Why are we supersetting these exercises?

Why are we going giantsets?

Whats a wave load?

Why did we do a dropset just then?

Why didn’t we do a dropset this time?

Why did we only do 8 reps instead of 12?

Why are we doing 15 reps instead of 12?

Why are we doing 6 reps?

Why are we going really slow?

Why are we going fast?

Why are we doing hack squats after squats when last week we did walking lunges after the squats?

I’d even watch Aiden training other people and ask why!

Last week on chest you started with incline press with dumbbells, this week you started with cable incline press why?

And so on!

Fortunately, Aiden patiently answered every question in great detail (deserves a medal!), explaining everything to the point where I now have a very good understanding of workout ‘philosophy’ and planning strategies.


Which brings me back to communication.

As a trainer, do you know how to talk to your client(s) in a way that they can hear you?

That might sound a bit strange to you, but have you ever had a conversation with someone where you know you have worded your instructions very simply and clearly, yet the other person just doesn’t seem to get it? Or stares at you blankly as if you’d just said something in Russian? Is the other person just stupid? Have you ever considered that how you are speaking to a person is not necessarily the way that they listen for and absorb information?


I’ll give you an example. Aiden first suggested I compete in a figure competition after about 8 weeks of working with him. Of course I could hear the actual words, but I couldn’t hear the meaning or the intention. At that point I’d never heard of a ‘figure competition’ and was only faintly aware of the concept of ‘bodybuilding’, both which were totally outside my perception of the world and not something I was interested in as I (like the vast majority of the population) subscribed to the stereotyped idea that muscly women were ugly or on drugs or both. I then went to see a competition which confirmed my stereotyped perspective of the world, and told Aiden that I wasn’t one of those people and never to suggest it again.


My, how things change!

So in order to get your point across, you need to work out what ‘mode’ triggers the other persons engagement receptors, in this scenario Aiden had not phrased the suggestion in a way that ‘triggered’ my hearing mode and so I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in what he was saying, it went right over my head. There’s a very good reason for this.

Those of you who have studied NLP or any type of performance learning strategies will be familiar with the 4mat concept of communication, which is a model for teaching and communication that will take instruction and subsequent comprehension to a higher level (see here).

For communication it centres around 4 strategies: Why, What, How, What If? And there is a particular order in which you need to use each of these 4 elements to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Next time you listen to a good public speaker or are watching a late night infomercial bear this in mind, chances are the speaker/salesperson will firstly tell you ‘why’ they’re here speaking to you/you need this product, then they will go into detail about ‘what’ it is, followed by ‘how’ you can apply the principles/use it, then they’ll close with a ‘what if’ scenario to really cement your understanding/hook you in.


Now ‘why’ people tend to be very bright, quick thinking, intelligent (goldfish attention span!) people – if you’re talking to someone about something that you’re passionate about or want them to do and you see them squirming, fidgeting, looking out of the window, inspecting their nails closely, chances are they’re a ‘why’ person and you have started the conversation with ‘what’ you want them to do and ‘how’ you want them to do it.


You’ve already lost them.

Let me give you an example:

If Aiden was explaining a workout to me he could say ‘We’re going to superset db shoulder press with db front raise (what), followed by upright rows superset w machine rear delts (what), followed by cable front raise superset w lat raise (what). We’re going to 3x 12 of each (how) and we’re going to raise the intensity by doing an explosive dropset on the last set (how) and we’re going to finish up with 2 sets of heavy abs (what)’

I would probably have switched off by the end of this explanation, not because I wasn’t interested, but simply because it’s not phrased in a way that grabs my attention and keeps it.

However, if that same explanation was pre-framed with ‘We want to hit each of the delt heads equally to maximise volume, intensity and get some pre fatigue (why) so we’re going to do…’ I would be right there to the end.

Another example:

Aiden might say: ‘I want to pre fatigue your quads to make sure your glutes do the work (why) when we do the Bulgarian lunges (what) by doing a quick set of leg extensions (how)’

Ok, got it, let’s go.

If he’d framed it up as follows: ‘we’re going to do a set of leg extensions before the Bulgarian lunges’.

You know exactly what would be coming next!

Why (1)

Aiden worked this out very quickly, and often (sensibly) pre-empted the inevitable by first telling me why we were going to do something before he told me what we were going to do. Maybe it’s ‘why’ I train so hard and love doing it!

Have you got any clients like that? If so try starting with ‘why’ and see if that makes a difference.

Now if your client is a ‘what’ person ( they probably ask ‘what’ type questions…)  you will need to start your explanation with ‘what’ you want them to do before going on to the ‘how’, then the ‘what if’ and ‘why’. ‘What’ people like to see the thing in action, so demonstrate the action first then let them have a go.

‘How’ people can’t wait to get their hands dirty in something. Tell them what you want them to do and how you want them to do it and they will be itching to get stuck in and try it for themselves – and then they will probably pester you for other alternatives or will tweak it themselves or just push you out of the way so they can have a go at it more quickly!

If you train groups of people and you want to get all of them to (enthusiastically) do the same thing, you need to start with the ‘why’. Capture the ‘why’ people first and you will still have an attentive audience by the time you get to the ‘what’ (which is next), then the how.

This may be completely unfamiliar to many of you, but it’s entirely possible that you do this instinctively from years of working with diverse personalities. If it is completely new, have a go, experiment with it, see if it makes a difference to your communication with your clients…especially your difficult ones ( go on, admit it, not all of your clients are angels!) you never know they may all of a sudden transform into willing obedient enthusiastic victims  (ahem), trainees