Meeting a client where they’re at is a popular buzzword in the fitness industry today, the idea being that it allows the coach to effectively prescribe movements, intensities and volume that are appropriate for the individual client’s strengths, limitations, goals, training and injury history.
It would be insane to prescribe ring dips or a muscle-up to someone who can’t do a push-up or a pull-up, right?
As a gym owner, how would you feel if you learned that your newest coach just put a brand new personal training client through a three-hour workout from Mat Fraser’s programming for elite CrossFit Games athletes? No big deal, just have that new PT client hit a hero workout in a weighted vest, followed by an hour strength session before 10 sets of 10 GHD sit-ups for some core work to finish. What if this person has been sedentary for the past five years, has an arthritic knee, and is 50 lb overweight?
You’d probably be horrified, and unimpressed with the coach (not disappointed in the client). Most likely, however, you have protocols in place to prevent something like this from ever happening in your facility.
- A consultation of some kind to get to know each new client as the individual that they are, and a chance to ask about their goals, what they’ve done in the past for exercise, and discuss any injuries or limitations they might have.
- Likely, you also do some movement assessment with each client to see where they’re at before weight and intensity are added into the mix.
If all of this was skipped you could end up with “great programming” assigned to the wrong person, with a terrible outcome for both the client and coach, and a high risk they won’t come back or stick around for very long.
But somehow, this is exactly what nutrition coaches often do: They ask a client who is currently eating fast-food five days a week and guzzling 2L of Pepsi a day to start diligently tracking their macronutrients. And then they secretly blame the client for a lack of willpower when they’re unsuccessful. Hmmm.
Just like training in the gym, nutrition coaching decisions largely come down to what the individual is capable of, similar to scaling Fran from “RX” to include 45-lb. thrusters and ring rows instead of pull-ups.
And just like training in the gym, it starts with an assessment.
Registered Dietitian Jennifer Broxterman, the creator of Two-Brain’s Nutrition Coaching Course, explains in the course that a great starting place is to consider where a client is at on a nutrition continuum from 0 to 100 percent.
0 percent: This client eats out all the time, doesn’t exercise, hasn’t made healthy eating a priority, and possibly has chronic pain or chronic disease. Essentially this client shows up to you in poor health.
50 percent: This client pays some attention to healthy eating. Maybe they cook healthy meals twice a week, but they tend to find themselves grabbing whatever they can find to eat for lunch. They don’t exercise regularly, but they know they should be so every now and again they’ll go to the gym or for a walk. They’re in decent health, but certainly have room for improvement.
70-90 percent: This client is committed to eating healthy most of the time and exercising regularly. They limit their processed foods, yet they aren’t obsessive about being perfect all the time. They’re in good to great health, but want to improve themselves just a little bit more.
100 percent: This client is rigid and obsessive with diet and exercise. Generally speaking, we probably don’t want to push our clients to this level, unless perhaps if they’re an elite athlete willing to do whatever is required to be at the best of their sport. However, for most people, this level of rigidity often comes with health trade-offs and likely isn’t sustainable for the long-term.
Once you have placed your client somewhere on the continuum, it becomes easier to make coaching recommendations that will allow them to be successful, not just in the short-term, but for the long-term.
Putting it into Practice
A new client named Jane wants help.
After talking to Jane about her lifestyle, you deem she is at the 25th percentile. She doesn’t like cooking and eats lunch out five days a week and orders from Skip the Dishes three nights a week. She also tends to drink a soda with lunch every day. She doesn’t exercise, but tries to go for a walk once a week.
Asking Jane to start cooking dinner every single night, preparing her lunches every morning and going to the gym four days a week probably isn’t realistic.
An appropriate first step approach is to ask them first what they’re willing and able to do?
- Are you willing to prepare lunches three mornings a week?
- Are you willing to prepare two dinners for the week with two servings of vegetables on Sunday afternoons?
- Are you willing to replace your soda with bubbly water for lunch three days a week?
- Are you willing to go for a walk for 20-30 minutes twice or three days a week?
Note: Throwing all four of the above changes on Jane is probably too much all at once, so ask her which one or two she can tackle now.
The key with this is to come up with a simple plan that, while not perfect, is do-able, as the best do-able option, if it actually gets done, is always going to be better than the ideal, perfect plan that continues to fall short.
As the science of behaviour change indicates, getting clients to follow-through on 1-2 small, incremental, and doable steps with consistency will help someone like Jane successfully move from the 25th to the 35th percentile over the course of the next month or so, and allow her to feel great about the process and motivated to continue on.
And then the following month of nutrition coaching, you and Jane can brainstorm together how she can add another simple step to her healthy lifestyle that doesn’t feel too overwhelming, which can vault her to the 45th percentile.
Wash, rinse, and repeat over time!
In weightlifting, we often use the phrase: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” The same is true when it comes to nutrition coaching. Rapid-fire, intense behaviour change usually results in burnout and abandonment of counting calories and trying to follow a strict meal plan. But if we meet each nutrition client where they are at, even if the pace feels s-l-o-w to the nutrition coach, we’re helping our clients to build the necessary muscle memory when it comes to healthy eating and habit formation.
The take-home: Nutrition, like fitness, is a long-term game. Being able to deadlift 400-lb. has to be earned, over time. And for most people, so do nutrition and lifestyle changes. So meeting a client where they’re at right now, and showing compassion for where they’re at, is a great first step in learning how to prescribe realistic plans to help them be successful long-term.
Jennifer Broxterman, MSc, RD
Registered Dietitian & Sports Nutritionist
Two-Brain Coaching, Nutrition Coaching Course Creator
Interested in improving your nutrition coaching skills, so you can feel more comfortable and confident teaching nutrition to your own clients? Learn more about our motivational interviewing and habits-based Nutrition Coaching Course for nutrition coaches.